Make Architecture Great Again

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Exciting news – if it will happen – from the White House about other future houses:

While the country was riveted by the President’s impeachment trial, a Washington rumor was quietly bubbling about a potential executive order that, if implemented, would profoundly affect the future of federal architecture.

[Architectural] RECORD has obtained what appears to be a preliminary draft of the order, under which the White House would require rewriting the Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture, issued in 1962, to ensure that “the classical architectural style shall be the preferred and default style” for new and upgraded federal buildings. Entitled “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again,” the draft order argues that the founding fathers embraced the classical models of “democratic Athens” and “republican Rome” for the capital’s early buildings because the style symbolized the new nation’s “self-governing ideals” (never mind, of course, that it was the prevailing style of the day).

The draft decries the quality of architecture under the General Service Administration’s (GSA) Design Excellence Program for its failure to re-integrate “our national values into Federal buildings” which too often have been “influenced by Brutalism and Deconstructivism.” The draft document specifically cites the U.S. Federal Building in San Francisco (2007, by Morphosis), the U.S. Courthouse in Austin, Texas (2012, by Mack Scogin Merrill Elam Architects), and the Wilkie D. Ferguson, Jr. U.S. Courthouse in Miami (2007, by Arquitectonica) for having “little aesthetic appeal.”

Here are the three buildings in question, clockwise from the top left:

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Think of them what you like – I have seen much worse in public architecture, but I have also seen much better. I don’t mind the Miami courthouse, where the glass gives the structure some lightness as opposed to the steel and stone solidity of the other two. Though I can’t escape the feeling that both the SF and Miami buildings have been inspired by the Star Wars sandcrawler:

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Be that as it may, most sane people outside of the architectural profession will agree that major crimes against aesthetics and human space have been committed in the post-war period in the name of Modernism and Brutalism. One only has to walk around the civic-heavy urban centres like Canberra – or much of the former communist block – to see the sheer ugliness of concrete expanses squatting over entire city blocks. They are the public service – or disservice – equivalents of the American projects, the British housing estates and the “blokowiska” or “osiedla” of the Eastern Europe: overwhelming, lifeless, depressing testaments of man’s trendy inhumanity to man and the environment.

I’m not sure if the American Institute of Architects has a position on modernism, but they are certainly not keen on the uniform return to classicism (would that be now a neo-neo-classicism?):

“The AIA strongly opposes uniform style mandates for federal architecture. Architecture should be designed for the specific communities that it serves, reflecting our rich nation’s diverse places, thought, culture and climates. Architects are committed to honoring our past as well as reflecting our future progress, protecting the freedom of thought and expression that are essential to democracy.”

Well, we all want to be free and free to do what we want, creative people perhaps most of all. The AIA seems to think the people they represent have the right to design whatever they want without having to take into consideration the client’s wishes, including when that client is the taxpayer. Architects can dream up and draw what they want, but there is no obligation on the public or the private customers to buy that any more than I can force people to pay me for my ravings. Architecture might be related to art but it’s also a business and in business the customer is always right, if only because they are the ones forking out their money for your product or service.  That the AIA seems not to understand either the concept of business or the freedom of speech does not inspire me with confidence about their work. Perhaps a uniform style mandate is not a bad idea after all.

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