Saying that with few exceptions the federal government for decades “has largely stopped building beautiful buildings,” President Trump has issued an executive order saying that “classical and traditional architecture” should be used by default in designing new buildings and renovating existing ones.
“New federal building designs should, like America’s beloved landmark buildings, uplift and beautify public spaces, inspire the human spirit, ennoble the United States, command respect from the general public, and, as appropriate, respect the architectural heritage of a region. They should also be visibly identifiable as civic buildings and should be selected with input from the local community,” it says.
Similarly, “where feasible and economical” that approach should be “given substantial consideration, especially with regard to the building’s exterior” during renovations, it says.
The order creates a President’s Council on Improving Federal Civic Architecture to consist of representatives from federal agencies and the public to recommend how to carry out those principles. The GSA would have to justify to the White House any intent to diverge from those principles, “with particular focus on whether such design is as beautiful and reflective of the dignity, enterprise, vigor, and stability of the American system of self-government as alternative designs of comparable cost using preferred architecture.”
“Encouraging classical and traditional architecture does not exclude using most other styles of architecture, where appropriate. Care must be taken, however, to ensure that all federal building designs command respect of the general public for their beauty and visual embodiment of America’s ideals,” it adds.
The order cites “modernist” and “brutalist” architectural styles that the government starting using in the 1950s as illustrated by buildings such as the HUD and HHS headquarters in Washington, D.C. which “visibly clashed with the existing classical architecture” around them.
Following criticism of those and similar buildings, the GSA started its Design Excellence program, but the order says even that program has resulted in buildings that both local residents and occupants have described as “ugly,” “inconsistent with [their] surroundings,” and lacking the “dignity” that federal buildings should convey—or not even identifiable as such.
The order’s criticism of the Design Excellence program follows a 2018 GAO report saying the program had “achieved excellence in architecture and the design of federal buildings” and had created “unique and aesthetically pleasing workspaces.” However, that report also said the program did not fully take into account that high-end features add to long-term upkeep costs.
It said for example that multistory atriums often led to additional costs including the need to erect expensive scaffolding for maintenance; that “green roofs” are especially vulnerable to water leaks, which in many cases are difficult to reach due to the design features; and specialty materials and finishes commonly wear out more quickly and are harder to clean than standard options.