Executive Order Promotes 'Beautiful' Federal Civic Architecture

Just what America needs right now!

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Palace of Soviets
How a Government Building Should Look.

Public Domain/ Boris Iofan,Vladimir Shchuko and Vladimir Gelfreikh, 1933

Treehugger previously wrote a post titled "US Government Goes After Green Modern Design, Will Make Architecture Classical Again" – now, in what most people consider to be his last days in office, the President of the USA has finally dropped his "Executive Order on Promoting Beautiful Federal Civic Architecture."

By "beautiful," the executive order means some form of "Classical" architecture:

"'Classical architecture' means the architectural tradition derived from the forms, principles, and vocabulary of the architecture of Greek and Roman antiquity, and as later developed and expanded upon by such Renaissance architects as Alberti, Brunelleschi, Michelangelo, and Palladio; such Enlightenment masters as Robert Adam, John Soane, and Christopher Wren; such 19th-century architects as Benjamin Henry Latrobe, Robert Mills, and Thomas U. Walter; and such 20th-century practitioners as Julian Abele, Daniel Burnham, Charles F. McKim, John Russell Pope, Julia Morgan, and the firm of Delano and Aldrich. Classical architecture encompasses such styles as Neoclassical, Georgian, Federal, Greek Revival, Beaux-Arts, and Art Deco."

The Executive order also includes other forms of "Traditional" architecture:

“'Traditional architecture' includes classical architecture, as defined herein, and also includes the historic humanistic architecture such as Gothic, Romanesque, Pueblo Revival, Spanish Colonial, and other Mediterranean styles of architecture historically rooted in various regions of America."

Traditional architecture has long been the style chosen by a certain kind of politician. After the Russian Revolution, the constructivists and the avant-garde created remarkable modern architecture and design, but according to The Art Story, "Stalin despised the avant-garde as elitist and inaccessible, and many of its chief proponents fled to Europe; if they stayed, they were isolated, banished, imprisoned, or even executed."

government building
A classical design for a new government building.

Albert Speer

Another dictator, who actually applied to architecture school but was rejected by the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna twice, preferred traditional, classical designs. Michael Sorkin wrote in The Nation: "I often thought that if only Hitler’s application had gone the other way, the planet would have been afflicted merely with one more mediocre architect."

Surprisingly, the President used to lean toward modern architecture. When he was a real estate developer he demolished the classically designed Bonwit Teller Building, designed by Warren and Wetmore, the architects of Grand Central Terminal. He had promised to save the artwork and sculptures, valued at $200,000, and donate them to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. However, he reneged on the deal; according to Places Journal,

Bonwit Teller building

New York Times

"When reminded in a later interview of the Met’s appraisal, Trump claimed that removal of the sculpture would actually have cost $500,000 and caused months of delay. Soon Trump was referring dismissively to 'the junk I destroyed at Bonwit Teller' and boasting that he’d ordered the destruction himself." 

The Bonwit Teller building site became his Trump Tower – he did much the same thing on his first big project, converting the Commodore Hotel to the Grand Hyatt, just shearing everything off and covering it with mirrored glass.

San Franciso Federal Building
San Franciso Federal Building.

via Wikipedia

The Executive Order is particularly dismissive of modern buildings like the San Francisco Federal Building, noting that "while elite architects praised the resulting building, many San Franciscans consider it one of the ugliest structures in their city." Treehugger praised it too, noting that "In total, it's designed to consume about half the power of a standard office tower – an indication of how building design can help slash emissions of greenhouse gases."

This is not to say that a traditional building cannot be energy efficient, one can do both. But these days, one might have different priorities.

Experienced hands like Paul Goldberger do not think this will amount to much, and as Matt Hickman notes in The Architects Newspaper, it does not even explicitly say everything must be classical, just that it be "beautiful."

So let's hope instead that the next president demands that all federal buildings be carbon neutral instead. That would be beautiful.