Trump Declares War on Modern Architecture: Making Federal Buildings “Beautiful Again?”


Chicago’s Federal Plaza – an assemblage of remarkable buildings in the heart of the Loop – was designed to express the best ideals of U.S. government and democracy: openness, strength, beauty and modernity.

The two modernist steel and glass skyscrapers from the 1960s and 1970s, a one-story pavilion-shaped post office and a public plaza marked by Alexander Calder Flamingo are also rooted in a proud Chicago design tradition, the creation of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.

But if this complex were planned today, you can bet President Donald J. Trump wouldn’t have any.

A style of past centuries

He would demand that buildings be designed in architectural styles of centuries past, extending his reactionary instincts to the very brick and mortar of government.

In a seven-page draft executive order obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times, Trump says the federal government since the 1950s has “largely stopped building beautiful buildings that the American people want to look at or to work in.”

Future federal government buildings, he decreed, should resemble those of ancient Rome, Greece and Europe.

“The classic architectural style should be the preferred and default style,” he says.

Trump’s draft executive order is titled – Get Ready For It – “Making Federal Buildings Look Better Again.”

Trump’s order would take architecture back to a bygone era where women wore beanies, men wore tricorn hats, and the only design acceptable for a federal building was an imitation of a classical Greek or Roman structure.

Other approved designs

In his draft executive order, the president praises the design of structures such as the United States Capitol, the White House, and the Supreme Court building, which most Americans see as “international symbols of democratic self-government.” . He also says he prefers Gothic, Romanesque, Spanish Colonial, and “other Mediterranean styles commonly found in Florida and the American Southwest.”

Mar-a-Lago, that is, could make the cut.

Buildings designed under Trump’s tenure would “convey the dignity, entrepreneurship, vigor and stability of the US system of self-government.” The new guidelines would also apply to the renovation of modern or contemporary federal buildings.

This is such a bad idea.

A state-imposed architectural style that retreats so resolutely into the past is an implicit negation of the best of American and world culture over the past hundred years. It is also the stuff of authoritarian regimes, which are always wary of the new and the unexpected.

It does not go unnoticed here that Mussolini, Franco and a German art student in particular all pushed for a singular, classically inspired state architecture intended to project tradition, order and state superiority. .

No architect needs to apply

We are also troubled by Trump’s plans to create a “Presidential Committee for the Re-Beautification of Federal Architecture” to establish, monitor, and enforce this design policy. Design panels working for the committee would exclude “artists, architects, engineers, art or architectural critics, members of the construction industry or any other member of the public affiliated with an interest group or organization. »Involved in the design or renovation of buildings.

The fear of an open society is palpable.

Viewed even in the best possible light, the draft executive order is nothing more than another intellectually superficial and self-glorifying gesture by Trump. This would relegate the design of federal buildings to roles in costumed drama.

Are we in love with the design of every federal building, of which there are some 300,000? Of course not. Trump, for his part, particularly stigmatizes brutalist architecture.

But to take refuge in an idealized aesthetic past would be absurd. And the block-and-concrete style of brutalism fell out of favor for new buildings at least 40 years ago.

Trump is also irrelevant in his critique of current guidelines for the design of federal buildings, the Guidelines for Federal Architecture, which were drafted in 1962 by future Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan for President John F. Kennedy.

Moynihan’s pioneering work shaped a generation of stellar federal buildings, including the New American Courthouse in Los Angeles and the Federal Building in Oklahoma City, a truly open and democratic building that replaced the destroyed Murrah Federal Building by American terrorists in 1995.

Spectators gather for the dedication of the Oklahoma City Federal Building on May 3, 2004, in Oklahoma City.
Getty Images Photo File

The whole message of the design of this building, which Trump’s draft executive order would never allow, is that our nation will not be intimidated by people like Timothy McVeigh into projecting themselves into the future.

Moynihan’s directives, we should add, are also responsible for the construction of the modernist Chicago Federal Plaza, designed by Mies.

Mies was an immigrant in Chicago. He came to town after being driven out of Germany by the Nazis, who deemed his work “degenerate”.

Protect freedom of thought

“Architecture must be designed for the specific communities it serves, reflecting the diverse places, thoughts, cultures and climates of our rich nation,” the American Institute of Architects said Wednesday in a statement opposing the order proposed by Trump.

The AIA made it clear that the architects “are committed to (…) protecting the freedom of thought and expression which are essential to democracy”.

Home staff circulated the draft executive order around Washington, looking for traction. Hoping they find absolutely none.

Trump’s decree is in the ashes of history.

One in marble, with domes and columns, if that helps.

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