What Trump’s Executive Order on Architecture Really Means
Last February, a media tempest swept over the design world when the White House debuted a proposed executive order mandating the use of “traditional” architecture in the construction of all new federal buildings. As of yesterday, that order (or a slightly modified version thereof) is now law—but this time, the tempest looks to be more like a passing drizzle.
Critical teeth-gnashing over the E.O., though occasionally overblown, hasn’t been altogether unwarranted. Entitled Executive Order on Promoting Beautiful Federal Civic Architecture, the proclamation overturns nearly 60 years of government policy that favored technical innovation and formal pluralism in the nation’s public works projects, an approach focused on “community-centered decision-making, demonstrated architectural skill, and public input,” as the American Institute of Architects wrote in a tart response to Monday’s announcement. For states and cities nationwide, the new order means less local control over what gets built in their own backyards, with all federal buildings over $50 million now conforming to a pre-approved stylistic menu, served up by a presidentially appointed council and limited to such offerings as “Gothic, Romanesque, Pueblo Revival, Spanish Colonial, and other Mediterranean styles.” For designers and architects, the implications are even more grave, with smaller practices, younger firms, and homegrown offices effectively shut out of federal largesse, unless they can stick columns on their façades or paint their courtroom interiors with Renaissance frescoes.
The eight months that have elapsed between the preview of the order text and its enactment have revealed some interesting crosscurrents in American attitudes about architecture today. On social media in particular, voices from the left-, right-, and middle-most segments of the political spectrum have emerged to laud the measure, echoing its negative appraisal of the “massive and block-like appearance” of late-modernist and contemporary buildings.
At the same time, Brutalist architecture—singled out by the text’s authors, though rather clumsily defined—has attracted legions of new defenders, giving further momentum to a preservationist movement that’s been gathering steam for the last decade. And from every quarter, from practitioners and historians, to would-be MAGA tastemakers and Bernie Bro culturati, a lively debate has raged over a seemingly abstruse question: What makes “authoritarian architecture” authoritarian?
Of course, in one sense at least, the answer should be fairly obvious: when the government that builds it is authoritarian. As the architecture theorist David Watkin argued 40 years ago, to promote or denigrate a style “on supposedly ethical grounds” is to confound “moral principle [and] aesthetic preference.” There is nothing intrinsically fascistic about, say, the starkly monumental Art Deco of the 1931 Bronx County Courthouse, and nothing undemocratic about Thom Mayne’s hyper-modern San Francisco Federal Building of 2007; both are earnest attempts to articulate some particular notion of the demos—of the public weal—and the success or failure of each can only be measured by how effectively that ideal is communicated. Everything else is simply a dispute over taste, which (as the fans of Roman architecture apparently need to be reminded) non est disputandum.
But even that kind of philosophizing is now somewhat beside the point. For designers worried about a potential chilling effect—that fresh and inventive interiors and buildings could somehow fall out of favor, or (worse) be deemed ideologically incorrect—as for critics advancing this or that cause, political, architectural, or both, there is no reason to quail, at least for now, at the prospect of a federally prescribed “beautiful” architecture. Today, with only four weeks to go until the president’s departure from the Oval Office, there is no time left to litter the American countryside with Vegas-esque pseudo-Parthenons. From the moment Joe Biden walks into the West Wing, he will be under considerable pressure from industry groups and the media to reverse the order. Two courthouses currently on the boards, one in Huntsville, Alabama, and another in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, may be subject to the order’s provisions, though even that could be subject to change. In any case, that would hardly constitute a building spree.
So if it’s not going to give rise to a design trend, or be part of a cogent future policy, why did the president bother signing the order at all? We may never know. It may have been done to shore up his reputation with some segment of his admirers. Or to further peeve the kind of people who already hated him. It could have been (like another great design-adjacent initiative, the famed post-election press conference in the storage yard of a Philadelphia landscaping company) just a bureaucratic freak—a spasm of the presidential pen.
Whatever it is, and though the comparison is admittedly a little outworn, it is impossible not to think of the final days of one rather famous authoritarian, himself also a devoted lover of architecture: sitting in his bunker as his world collapsed around him, rearranging the models of grandiose buildings that would never be built, in a capital that would never exist.