President Joe Biden has made a sweeping change to the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts that could have broad implications for the aesthetics of the federal government’s architecture. On Tuesday, the Biden White House announced a plan to appoint four new members to the commission, effectively squashing the previous administration’s efforts to impose a strictly classical style on all the major buildings and monuments funded by the government.
With this action, Biden has officially killed former President Donald Trump’s efforts to mandate the use of Roman and Greek-style neoclassical architecture, with its columns, pale stone facades, and general imitation of European-style buildings from the 18th century—an aesthetic that dominated the early buildings of the young United States of America. When first announced as a draft order in early 2020, the Trump administration framed its design preference as “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again,” but design critics were quick to point out that decreeing neoclassicism as an official style is more akin to the leanings of dictators like Adolf Hitler. Eventually renamed “Promoting Beautiful Federal Civic Architecture,” Trump’s executive order eschewed modernism and Brutalism and hearkened back to a less diverse time in U.S. history that many felt contributed to his administration’s aesthetics of hate.
Biden revoked that executive order in February. Now, he’s appointing new members to the commission in order to ensure such a draconian design mandate doesn’t materialize. The seven-member commission advises the president and Congress on design and aesthetics, and is involved in guiding the design of memorials and new or renovated government buildings. Since its creation in 1910, the commission has included influential designers such as landscape architects Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. and Hideo Sasaki, and architect Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. Notably, the commission under Trump was filled by seven white men.
On Tuesday, the White House announced the names of its four new appointees, each of whom will serve four-year unpaid terms, and are, in contrast to the Trump administration’s approach, fairly progressive. The new commissioners are architect Peter D. Cook, of HGA Architects, who worked on the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture; Howard University urban planning professor Hazel Ruth Edwards; former executive director of New York City’s Public Design Commission Justin Garrett Moore, who’s now program officer of the Humanities in Place program at the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation; and architect Billie Tsien, whose firm Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects has designed the Obama Presidential Center in Chicago.
The new appointees represent a dramatic change for the formerly all-white commission, and they bring a diversity of backgrounds and expertise. The appointment of Edwards, for example, will combine a depth of knowledge in urban design with the experience of working with a university student body that is predominantly female and minority, according to John Anderson, dean of the College of Engineering and Architecture at Howard University. “In general, it’s becoming more widely accepted that you get a better product with diversity,” he says. “Dr. Edwards moves the commission forward in that regard.”
The appointees replace four Trump-era commissioners, including Justin Shubow, a noted advocate of classical architecture and president of the National Civic Art Association, who served as chair of the commission since his appointment in 2018 and is neither a designer nor a practicing architect. Each of the four were asked by the Biden White House to resign or be replaced. Shubow refused to resign, and shared his letter of refusal with NPR, noting that “[i]n the Commission’s 110-year history, no commissioner has ever been removed by a President, let alone the commission’s chairman. Any such removal would set a terrible precedent.”
The three other commissioners being replaced are landscape architect Perry Guillot, architect Steven Spandle, and artist Chas Fagan, who were all appointed only days before Trump left office.
Decisions surrounding the makeup of the Commission on Fine Arts are hardly apolitical, as the appointees do not require confirmation by the Senate. Biden’s choices appear to be swinging the pendulum back away from the more controversial design leanings of the Trump administration, including his executive order to create a “National Garden of American Heroes,” a statuary park featuring likenesses of historic figures including Ronald Reagan, Antonin Scalia, and Harriet Tubman. It was an executive order tinged with criticism against protesters calling for the removal of statues depicting Confederate generals and notoriously racist figures from the past—the types of statues the order referred to as “silent teachers in solid form of stone and metal.”
Designers and curators blasted that project. “Ultimately I think this is a political, not a landscape, act,” landscape architect Gary Hilderbrand, cofounder of the Boston-based firm Reed Hilderbrand, told Fast Company in July when the park was first announced. “I think a directive like this is already too specific and too pitched, too sided.”
The Biden White House has also canceled this plan. It’s too early to say what, if any, aesthetic choices the Commission on Fine Art’s new members will make. But with progressive voices in architecture and urban planning, their advice will probably reflect a wider diversity of approaches to designing for the 21st century. Whatever form that takes, it seems likely that the Trump era’s heavy-handed design ideas are little more than a weird memory from a very different time.