I had barely processed the president’s vulgar victory lap, following his sham acquittal in the Senate, when suddenly architecture (of all things) took center stage. Architectural Record’s Cathleen McGuigan broke news of a preliminary draft circulating in Washington. A proposed executive order would rewrite the Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture, developed by Daniel Patrick Moynihan and issued in 1962, ensuring that henceforth “the classical architectural style be the preferred and default style for new and upgraded federal buildings.” The New York Times followup lit the architecture world ablaze.
Predictable outrage ensued. The AIA condemned the imposition of a preferred style, conveniently overlooking the fact that modernism has reigned for decades as the default style by mutual consensus (rather than government edict). Still, the larger point was well taken: state-sponsored “house” styles tend to be hallmarks of authoritarian rule. And given the president’s penchant for thuggish rhetoric, there was something chilling about the proposed edict. (By the way, I admire classical buildings, even new ones—just not at the exclusion of everything else.)
But what’s really going on here? I’d argue that it goes back to the president. His reality show administration thrives on chaos. If it has anything close to a governing style, a legislative strategy, it’s this: the president acts out, while rogue ideologues, seizing opportunities created by continuing spectacle, push extreme agendas on multiple fronts (think Stephen Miller, Betsy DeVos, Andrew Wheeler, et al).
Meanwhile, the rest of us struggle to keep up. How do you prioritize epic, perpetual dumpster fires? The proposed executive order wasn’t even the third-most egregious act perpetrated by the administration this month. (Have you taken a peek at the proposed budget?) These avalanches are how we get children in cages (they’re still there, by the way), a gutted EPA, the reintroduction of asbestos as a viable building material, and so on—there are way too many to list. Even the stories that get significant play eventually get subsumed by the noise, the tweets, the fresh outrages. Sometime very soon, the impeachment is going to feel years removed. But the news cycle churns on, leaving brutal and corrupt policies in its wake. There is method to this madness: call it distract and conquer.
Now it’s architecture’s turn to make its entrance into this circus. The ideologue at the root of this proposal is Justin Shubow, president of the National Civic Art Society, a Washington-based group dedicated to promoting classical architecture. Shubow seems to have an almost religious belief in the sanctity of the classical order; he’s an ambitious fanatic, and a somewhat typical Trump appointee in that regard.
In recent years, Shubow orchestrated a virtual one-man opposition to the Frank Gehry-designed Eisenhower Memorial, now nearing completion. He managed to alienate the Eisenhower family from the process, slowing the memorial’s progress, but he ultimately failed to block it. However, he was able to parlay his renown as an architectural gadfly into an appointment to the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts in 2018. From this perch, Shubow appears to have helped craft the proposed executive order; Architectural Record notes that the language mirrors the website for Shubow’s organization. (I reached out to Shubow for comment on his involvement in helping shape the order, but had not heard back by press time.)
In the New York Times, Benjamin Forgey, the former architecture critic for The Washington Post, called the order “profoundly mischievous.” I’d characterize it as a deliberate provocation, the work of an aesthetic troll.
The seven-page draft takes direct aim at the original Guiding Principles, which in truth produced some spectacularly unsuccessful buildings in the ’60s and ’70s. (We can’t pretend otherwise.)
But the General Services Administration’s Design Excellence Program has without question improved the quality of federal buildings in recent decades—Thom Mayne’s San Francisco Federal Building notwithstanding. Could it be more architecturally diverse? Yes. Should the public be part of the selection process? Absolutely. But these are tweaks to the program, not sledgehammers. Mandating a state-sanctioned style—any style—is not only bad policy, but it’s a recipe for really bad buildings.
It’s no surprise that saner heads in the classical architecture community have distanced themselves from this effort. For good reason: it is ill-timed and not at all attuned to shifts in architectural culture. The style wars that consumed generations of architects hold absolutely no interest to younger practitioners. For most architects and designers under 40, these aesthetic battles are seen for what they basically are: an old man’s game, a previous war, with little or no relevance to them or their futures. And they’re right; they’ve got bigger fish to fry, like survival of the species.
In a way, this clumsy procedural stunt couldn’t have come at a worse time for classical architecture. Younger architects are far more style agnostic and open to other influences than their elders. They prioritize process over form. Modernism as a sort of style religion has lost the moral high ground (if it ever truly possessed it), due to its role as the face of global capitalism and income inequality. So, if your goal is influencing the hearts and minds of the young—the only real goal, if your objective is change—then hitching your fate to the Trump brand is likely to have the opposite effect.
So if this edict is noise, a smokescreen, a blundering case of bureaucratic overreach, why should we care? We will, of course, move on to the next set of outrages, as early as tomorrow. But this piece of distraction is chilling in what it omits. Think of it: a proposed executive order on federal buildings, in the year 2020, without a single mention of climate change or even “environmental stewardship.” Architecture is responsible for almost half of the world’s carbon emissions. And yet we don’t even get a throwaway line to acknowledge the existence of the issue. Tragically, this is consistent, not just with the president’s ignorant rhetoric around this subject, but with actual policy. We’re out of the Paris Accords—and committed to what? “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again”?
For those diehard classicists who hate this president but see the executive order as a justified means to an end (let me introduce you to majority leader, Mitch McConnell), I would remind them of the moral stench associated with close proximity to this president. Dozens of people who have worked closely with him have paid for it with the loss of their reputations, jobs, fortunes, and even freedom. None of them are particularly sympathetic people, as it turns out, but they do provide a cautionary note: No person, no organization, no idea, emerges from the Trump swamp with their dignity intact. Classical architecture deserves a better fate. Here’s hoping this is all an empty exercise in pure distraction.
Martin C. Pedersen is a New Orleans-based writer and critic. He is the executive director of the Common Edge Collaborative (commonedge.org), an architecture and design website dedicated to public engagement.