Proposed Executive Order Would Mandate Classical Architecture For Federal Buildings President Trump upset the architectural world when he proposed an executive order mandating traditional, classical architecture for new federal buildings, and calling some buildings "just plain ugly."
NPR logo

'Just Plain Ugly': Proposed Executive Order Takes Aim At Modern Architecture

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/805256707/805760645" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
'Just Plain Ugly': Proposed Executive Order Takes Aim At Modern Architecture

'Just Plain Ugly': Proposed Executive Order Takes Aim At Modern Architecture

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/805256707/805760645" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

President Trump has set the architectural world reeling. He's put out a draft executive order titled Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again, which calls for new public buildings to be designed in a classical or traditional style. As NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports, the directive is not to everyone's taste.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: The draft of the order is an out with the new, in with the old approach. It calls modern federal buildings constructed over the last five decades undistinguished, uninspiring and just plain ugly. It's true that modernism abounds in D.C. Standing on a street corner near the National Mall, there's actually a mishmash of architectural styles. Let's talk about three of them - in the distance, the gleaming white pillars of the U.S. Capitol Dome, the kind of classical architecture the executive order favors; closer in, a towering steel mesh scrim that's part of the Eisenhower Memorial, a contemporary design by Frank Gehry which is under construction. Right behind the scrim, there's the beige, boxy, concrete-heavy Department of Education, a brutalist building - the style a lot of people love to hate. Marion Smith of the National Civic Art Society is one of them. He looks at this entire vista with disgust.

MARION SMITH: From where I'm standing, I see modernist structures, and the only hint of a classical building I can see is the top of the U.S. Dome. That is not what our founders had in mind. This is a new reigning orthodoxy of modernist, brutalist, postmodernist design.

BLAIR: Brutalism was a popular movement with architects beginning in the 1950s, but it's mostly fallen out of favor. The National Civic Art Society is the driving force behind the president's executive order. Smith believes Americans want the kind of neoclassical architecture that he says inspires the ideals of American democracy.

SMITH: The White House, the Supreme Court, the Library of Congress - these are buildings that Americans recognize and love.

ROBERT IVY: We are absolutely opposed to this order.

BLAIR: Robert Ivy heads the American Institute of Architects. He says the order doesn't account for the needs of today's federal buildings, like technology, energy efficiency and security.

IVY: In the 21st century, we're very different people from the people who popularized Greek revival architecture in the 19th century, as beautiful as it was. But to try to force-fit new systems in old forms is in of itself difficult to do, inefficient and is not who we are today.

BLAIR: To be clear, the executive order would only mandate classical architecture for federal buildings in Washington, D.C. It would not include Smithsonian museums. It's unclear whether it would affect memorials. The order defines classical as including Gothic, Romanesque, Spanish, Mediterranean and other traditional styles. The order mostly trashes federal buildings constructed from the 1950s on, but it does single out one recent building for praise - the Federal Building and Courthouse in Tuscaloosa, Ala., designed by HBRA Architects in Chicago and completed in 2011.

ARIC LASHER: We're very proud of it.

BLAIR: Architect Aric Lasher of HBRA says the Tuscaloosa building is partly modeled after Greek temples with columns and classical ornamental motifs, but his firm used that style because that's what this particular building, location and community called for. He says it would be preposterous for the government to dictate any style of architecture.

LASHER: The artistic potential of architecture and the artistic productivity of the American people does not necessarily emerge through fiat.

BLAIR: Right now the guidelines for federal architecture, which were written in 1962, say, quote, "design must flow from the architectural profession to the government and not vice versa." If adopted, the president's executive order would reverse that. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHITECTURE IN HELSINKI'S "ESCAPEE")

Copyright © 2020 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.