New York times
The founders of this country, conscious that they were creating a new form of government, leaned heavily on the available ancient precedents. They dressed their new republic in the architecture of Greece and Rome, asserting its legitimacy with pillars and pediments.
Now the United States is nearly 250 years old; it no longer needs to wear borrowed clothes. And modern federal buildings rightly reflect the diversity of this great nation, from the wavy blue glass of the federal courthouse in Miami to the salvaged timber planks in a federal office building in Seattle to the vertiginous white facade of a courthouse annex in Salt Lake City.
Those three buildings are among the products of a 30-year-old federal program, little known but highly successful, that encourages excellence in the design of major federal buildings.
Beginning with projects like the John Joseph Moakley Courthouse in Boston, which features a curved glass facade that reflects Boston Harbor, the federal program has regularly succeeded in producing buildings embraced and cherished by their occupants and their communities.
But a proposed executive order, titled “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again,” would shift the style of future federal buildings back to the past. The order, first reported by the magazine Architectural Record, is based on the confounding premise that the United States is experiencing a crisis in civic architecture. “The federal government,” it asserts, “has largely stopped building beautiful buildings that the American people want to look at or work in.”
The order is quite clear about the definition of beauty and the necessary solution to this crisis: “In the National Capital Region and for all Federal courthouses, the classical architectural style shall be the preferred and default style.” In other words, federal buildings, most of all federal courthouses, should resemble Roman temples as closely as possible.
— although presumably without any statues of false gods in the lobby.
While the proposal has yet to reach the president’s desk, the agency that oversees the design of federal buildings is already demonstrating a renewed interest in classical architecture.
In February 2019, the agency announced a design change just before the start of construction on a federal courthouse in Greenville, S.C. Instead of a 10-story brick tower, designed to resemble other buildings in the downtown area, the government is now constructing a 10-story concrete tower with classical lines.
In September, the agency picked a classical design described by the winning architect as “an ode to the past” for a federal courthouse in Anniston, Ala. The new building will closely resemble the current courthouse, built in 1906.
The proposed executive order reflects a broader inclination in some parts of American society to substitute an imagined past for the complexities and possibilities of the present. It embodies a belief that diversity is a problem and uniformity is a virtue.
It is advocating for an un-American approach to architecture.
In the 1962 guidelines that have shaped the design of federal buildings for more than half a century, Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote that architecture “must provide visual testimony to the dignity, enterprise, vigor, and stability of the American Government.” How can anyone imagine that erecting knockoffs of ancient buildings from other cultures would serve to demonstrate the dignity, enterprise and vigor of our republic? And stability rests on those virtues: We remain strong by growing and changing.
There are several thousand federal buildings: some splendid, some quite ugly, and there’s plenty of room for disagreement about which buildings belong in which category. The key point is that neither the successes nor the failures amount to an argument for the end of architecture. They are a testament to the American faith that we are in the process of forming a more perfect union.