“For more than a century and a half, America’s Federal architecture produced beautiful and beloved buildings,” reads a draft executive order by the Trump administration obtained by Fast Company called “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again.” The proposed order, first obtained by Architectural Record, would mandate a classical or traditional style for new or renovated federal buildings.
Then things turned ugly. That’s at least according to this document. It claims that after the Ad Hoc Committee on Federal Office Space issued its “Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture” in 1962, classical architecture was replaced with increasing speed by midcentury modernist design, ranging from the “undistinguished to designs the public widely considered uninspiring . . . and even just plain ugly.” According to the draft order, the General Services Administration established the Design Excellence program in 1994 to better adhere to those original 1962 Guiding Principles—after recognizing “the aesthetic failures, including ugliness, of the designs it was commissioning.” Ouch.
It goes on to cite buildings that have “little aesthetic appeal,” saying that the government has effectively stopped constructing “beautiful buildings that the American people want to look at or work in.” (One such building it calls “universally cherished”? The Eisenhower Executive Office Building built in 1888, which American author and satirist Mark Twain called “the ugliest building in America.”) While the draft order talks a lot about aesthetics and “national values,” what it doesn’t mention is how those spaces are actual workplaces that federal employees have to use every day and the public has to visit. So would buildings constructed under new guidelines be places where the American people actually want to go? The short answer is probably not.
The draft order defines “classical architectural style” as a derivative of the “forms and principles of classical Greek and Roman architecture” but also cites Renaissance, Enlightenment, and even 19th- and 20th-century architects who have used classical design motifs. (Think back to your art history days: columns, cornices, colonnades, porticos, and friezes of antiquity-era temples should come to mind.) Because the style has been used and reused so much over the millennia, it can be tough to pin down. In addition to classical architecture, it favors traditional, “humanistic” styles, such as Gothic, Romanesque, and Spanish colonial (like Mar-a-Lago).
Classical design is fundamentally different from what we see in contemporary work spaces. A classical building does have some pros, according to Sarah M. Whiting, the dean and Josep Lluís Sert professor of architecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. A classical building might have an “elegance for entryways” that she says serves it well for public spaces and have grand open spaces (like atria) that work well as communal, shared spaces. But from there, adherence to a classical, symmetrical style poses some problems for modern workers and visitors alike.
The background spaces beyond the entry tend to be “very rabbit warren”-like in that the layout is more like a series of small, connected rooms “as opposed to spaces of light and space that we need for working today,” according to Whiting.
A classical layout also emphasizes a “hierarchical structure intended to enforce status based on location within a building,” says Joseph White, director of workplace futures and insight at Herman Miller. That’s in stark contrast to layouts of today, which emphasize the openness and flexibility of modern work and visually prioritize access to nature and natural light.
Working within a classical space may not have a huge impact on performance of day-to-day staffers, Whiting says. “I think people in work spaces ideally recognize that they’re affected by those spaces, and I would say that they would work better in a better space, but we can adapt to pretty much anything,” she says.
But federal buildings in particular present another layer of complexity in how they function as symbols of power in public space. A design that emphasizes a federal building as a “symbol of authority” changes the lived experience of a person coming in to file paperwork or attend a court date. It presents “a very retrograde idea of what symbolizes our civic definition,” Whiting says. In contrast, Whiting cites Fresno City Hall, built in 1939 and featured in the 1944 MoMA exhibition Built in the USA, as an example of accessible public design.
Courthouses pose their own unique challenges. Principal Mack Scogin, of Mack Scogin Merrill Elam architects, which designed the United States Courthouse in Austin, which is called out in the draft order as having “little aesthetic appeal,” told me that finding the architectural balance between a courthouse’s symbolic nature and its “very precise critical functional relationship” puts it “beyond the norm in building types.” There’s a certain gravitas to a function of a federal courthouse that goes beyond style. In fact, he says, “I hate the word ‘style’ that everyone is using. Time, place, and use come together to make something beyond style. It’s a very complex set of circumstances. And it’s people’s lives that are at stake with these buildings.”
Scogin told me that he and his team traveled with judges and the GSA to a number of courthouses for design references before starting on the Austin courthouse. After taking the feedback of judges into consideration, Mack Scogin Merrill Elam architects designed the courthouse to maximize natural light in courtrooms by placing them on multiple stories along the exterior of the building. Safety concerns around functional needs of the building, like prisoner handling, in combination with north-, south-, east-, and west-facing courtrooms, required each of them be reoriented. Ironically, according to Scogin, this reorientation solved a “classical” courthouse issue of needing direct natural light in courtrooms. And while Mack Scogin Merrill Elam architects didn’t emphasize natural light with a classical colonnade (basically, a series of weight-supporting columns often in the front of a building or portico), Scogin says they achieved the same result with glass.
So the ultimate irony is that a federal building that was dismissed as having “little aesthetic appeal” actually uses classical principles “but a different way to express it,” says Scogin. “You have the dilemma where you address the modern courtroom and traditions of the past, and it produces something a classical building can’t do,” he adds. “It’s an evolution of the modern building that you haven’t seen before.”
As much as architecture is about looks, it’s also about function, and how its structure helps the purpose of the people who use it. “The primary purpose of architecture (unless it is purely sculpture) is to create a place to support people. The secondary purpose (this applies to the exterior façade and arch as purely sculpture) is to make a statement. That statement can communicate and inspire—or it can mislead and obscure—the meaning of what’s happening on the inside,” says White.
It’s not so much that classical architecture is aesthetically displeasing or was functionally bad for the time it was built for.
It’s the prescription of the style within a modern context. It disregards how classicism has been used, co-opted, and has simply become too damn expensive over the centuries to execute authentically. It’s the prospect of a binary, either/or choice that indicates a misunderstanding of how design—and democracy—works at scale.