Make federal buildings ‘beautiful again?’ Trump declares war on modern architecture

In a draft order obtained by the Sun-Times, Trump declares that future buildings should look like those of ancient Rome, Greece and Europe. This is such a bad idea.

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Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Federal Plaza on Dearborn street

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Federal Plaza on Dearborn Street.

Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Chicago’s Federal Plaza — an assemblage of striking buildings in the heart of the Loop — was designed to express the best ideals of American government and democracy: Openness, strength, beauty and modernity.

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

But if this complex were being planned today, you can bet President Donald J. Trump would have none of it.

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A style of centuries past

He would demand that the 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 declares that the federal government since the 1950s has “largely stopped building beautiful buildings that the American people want to look at or work in.”

Future federal government buildings, he decrees, should look like those of ancient Rome, Greece and Europe.

“Classical architectural style shall be the preferred and default style,” he states.

Trump’s draft order is titled — get ready for it — “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again.”

Trump’s order would hurl architecture back into a bygone era when women wore bonnets, men wore tricorn hats and the only acceptable design for a federal building was a knock-off of a classical Greek or Roman structure.

Other approved designs

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

Mar-a-Lago, that is to say, might make the cut.

Buildings designed under Trump’s mandate would “convey the dignity, enterprise, vigor and stability of America’s system of self-government.” The new guidelines would apply as well to the remodeling of modern or contemporary federal buildings.

This is such a bad idea.

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

It doesn’t go unnoticed here that Mussolini, Franco and a particular failed German art student all pushed for a singular, classically inspired state architecture intended to project tradition, order and the superiority of the state.

No architects need apply

We’re also troubled by Trump’s plan to create a “President’s 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 architecture critics, members of the building industry or any other members of the public that are affiliated with any interest group or organization” involved in designing or remodeling buildings.

The fear of an open society is palpable.

Viewed in even the best possible light, the draft order amounts to nothing more than another intellectually shallow and self-aggrandizing move by Trump. It would relegate the design of federal buildings to roles in a costume drama.

Viewed in even the best possible light, the draft order amounts to nothing more than another intellectually shallow and self-aggrandizing move by Trump. It would relegate the design of federal buildings to roles in a costume drama.

Are we enamored of the design of every federal building, of which there are some 300,000? Of course not. Trump, for his own part, singles out Brutalist architecture for particular scorn.

But to retrench into some idealized aesthetic past would be absurd. And Brutalism’s blocky, concrete style fell out of favor for new buildings at least 40 years ago.

Trump is equally off-base in his criticism of the current guidelines for federal building design, the Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture, which were written up in 1962 by future Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan for President John F. Kennedy.

Moynihan’s forward-thinking work shaped a generation of stellar federal buildings, including the new Los Angeles U.S. Courthouse and the Oklahoma City Federal Building — a truly open and democratic building that replaced the Murrah Federal Building blown up by American terrorists in 1995.

John Ashcroft Attends Dedication Of New Federal Building In Oklahoma City

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

Getty Images file photo

The entire message of that building’s design, which Trump’s draft order would never allow, is that our nation will not be cowed by the likes of a Timothy McVeigh from pushing into the future.

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

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

Protect freedom of thought

“Architecture should be designed for the specific communities that it serves, reflecting our rich nation’s diverse places, thought, culture and climates,” the American Institute of Architects said Wednesday in a statement opposing Trump’s proposed order.

The AIA pointedly added that architects “are committed to ... protecting the freedom of thought and expression that are essential to democracy.”

House staffers have been floating the draft order around Washington, looking for traction. Here’s hoping they find absolutely none.

Trump’s executive order belongs in the ashcan of history.

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

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.

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