Biden Dumps Committee Favoring Neoclassical Architecture Over Sustainable Design

The previous president wanted to make architecture classical again.

Acceptable architecture
Acceptable Traditional Architecture in Washington.

Glowimages/ Getty Images

President Joe Biden fired four appointees to the Commission of Fine Arts, which oversees the design of federal buildings.

In his last days as president, Donald Trump dropped an "Executive Order on Promoting Beautiful Federal Civic Architecture" essentially banning modern architecture and packed the commission with traditionalists to elevate neoclassical architecture.

We noted earlier that the trend toward traditionalism was a move away from sustainability, justified by the fact that "the most sustainable buildings will stand for a very long time because they are well built and because their design reflects enduring human preferences rather than stylistic fads." In other words, the green gizmos are a passing fad but imposing columns rule forever.

Matt Hickman of the Architects Newspaper notes "the current composition of the CFA is markedly less diverse in terms of non-male and non-white representation than it has been in the recent past (it is the first all-white commission in more than a decade)." The head of the CFA, Justin Shubow is the head of the National Civic Art Society and has been a loud proponent of traditional architecture—and an even louder critic of modernism and brutalism.

Shubow drafted Trump's executive order. He's also refusing to leave. Hickman quotes his response:

"I respectfully decline your request to resign. I request an explanation of the legal basis and grounds of your extraordinary request and accompanying threat of termination....  I am a well-qualified judge of the fine arts who The New York Times and NPR called ‘one of modern architecture’s biggest critics.’ I have not received a single complaint about my performance."

Assuming that Shubow does get shown the door, Biden is replacing the four with Treehugger favorite Billie Tsien; Peter Cook, who worked on the National Museum of African American History; Hazel Ruth Edwards, the Chair of Howard University's Department of Architecture; and Justin Garrett Moore, former director of the New York City Public Design Commission. Tsien's firm has experience in sustainable design, most notably with the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment at Princeton University.

Not everyone is thrilled with the new composition of the board. Charles Birnbaum, president and CEO of The Cultural Landscape Foundation tells Treehugger:

“Under the Obama Administration, the Commission of Fine Arts (CFA) had three landscape architects as commissioners: Elizabeth Meyer, Liza Gilbert and Mia Lehrer. None of the four proposed commissioners is a landscape architect, which is notable considering how much of the capital’s unique and significant landscape legacy falls within its purview. The legacy of landscape architects on the CFA includes Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., Gilmore Clarke, Hideo Sasaki & Diana Balmori. Given the importance of climate change & social equity in the public realm, why would the CFA move forward without a landscape architect?”

Birnbaum makes a very good point, especially since parks are often treated as little more than future development sites for federal buildings. Someone has to be there to protect them.