The president is about to sign an executive order “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again” that would force the General Service Administration to rewrite the Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture. Since 1962, the existing principles have mandated that federal buildings be designed in contemporary styles befitting the period they were constructed.
The executive order by contrast specifically takes aim at new federal buildings designed in brutalist Deconstructivist or modernist styles citing the U.S. Federal Building by Morphosis in San Francisco among others as having “little aesthetic appeal,” a point that’s a matter of opinion, not fact.
The desire of the administration to establish federal guidelines for federal architecture is a solution in search of a problem. The current policy has resulted in much seriously outstanding landmark quality works of architecture reflecting a diverse vocabulary of expression. There is nothing of value to be gained in dumping this long standing well considered policy only to impose the president’s personal tastes on what should be built with the straight jacket of a prescribed style of architecture.
This includes our own award winning National Cemetery and, here in town, our new Federal Courthouse. Neither of these outstanding works of design would have seen the light of day under this new presidential directive.
Buildings the president has expressed hatred for include the FBI South Florida headquarters, U.S. Embassy in London and U.S. Federal Building in San Francisco. His assessment is solely based on his impression of the outside appearance of these examples and his personal tastes. There is no evidence he gave any consideration for, or for that matter, even understands the agency client’s project program that resulted in these world class works of architecture. That they meet various standards of energy efficiency, internal workflow for their intended purpose and speak in spatial relation to their surrounding built environment is more important than someone’s off the cuff impression of the building’s apparent style.
This policy proposal by the president reflects his lack of knowledge of architecture, history of architecture, both worldwide and western civilization and the design process itself. That public architecture should meet the expectations of his or any official’s personal tastes would be a misuse of public resources.
That this order was quickly opposed by a number of professional organizations, architects, and historians, including the American Institute of Architects, National Trust for Historic Preservation, National Organization of Minority Architects, and others is telling. There’s a problem here. In response, on July 13, Congresswoman Dina Titus (D-NV) introduced H.R. 7604, the Democracy in Design Act, to the House of Representatives, which would codify the GSA’s Design Excellence Program principles into law, preempting the ability for a president to change them via executive order. This bill, if made law, would encode what has long been an excellent policy that has served the nation well.
Stephen Montgomery is vice chair of the Bakersfield Historic Preservation Commission.