Proposed Executive Order Regarding Design of Federal Buildings Stirs Up Architecture Community


By: Matt Foree

Earlier this year, a draft Executive Order was leaked to an architectural publication and quickly spread across the architecture community. The Executive Order, entitled “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again,” discussed guidelines for the design of Federal buildings. The Executive Order criticized the abandonment of traditional, classical designs in favor of the adoption of mid-century modernism, including brutalism, for Federal buildings. The draft Order went as far as to say that the criticized designs “ranged from the undistinguished to designs the public widely considered uninspiring, inconsistent with their surroundings and the architectural heritage of a region, and even just plain ugly.” The Executive Order specifically called out for criticism recent Federal buildings including the new San Francisco Federal building, the Austin U.S. Courthouse, and the Wilkie D. Ferguson, Jr. U.S. Courthouse in Miami (see photo), claiming that these buildings have “little aesthetic appeal.”

The draft Executive Order proposed making “Federal buildings beautiful again” through encouragement of classical and traditional architectural styles. Among other things, the Executive Order set forth a policy in which special regard for the classical architectural style is preferred for applicable Federal public buildings. It stated that in the National Capital Region and for all Federal courthouses the classical architectural style shall be the preferred and default style absent special extenuating factors necessitating another style. Additionally, the Executive Order established a Committee on the Re-Beautification of Federal Architecture and its responsibilities, which included a report recommending updates to the Guiding Principles of Federal Architecture.

The draft Executive Order created a stir within the architectural community. The American Institute of Architects (“AIA”) issued an immediate response. The AIA expressed strong and unequivocal opposition to the draft Executive Order, noting that it would dictate a specific architectural style for Federal courthouses and certain other Federal buildings. The AIA stated, “we always work with the communities to assess the most appropriate architecture for projects within those communities. A one-size-fits-all mandate simply ignores needed input from impacted parties.” The AIA asserted that “it does not, and never will, prioritize any type of architectural design over another.” Furthermore, it noted that there are many examples of beautiful and innovative buildings in all styles of architecture, including the styles explicitly mentioned in the draft executive order Classicist, Brutalist, Spanish Colonial. America has proven uniquely able to incorporate, modify, and advance architectural traditions from a variety of other eras and places. Furthermore, it stated that the community should continue to have the right and responsibility to decide for itself what architectural design best fits its needs. Finally, the AIA closed by reiterating its staunch opposition to the proposed Executive Order, imploring, “Please ensure that this order is not finalized or executed.”

The latest salvo in the debate was provided by the publication of the results from a survey suggesting that the public prefers traditional designs for U.S. courthouses and office buildings. The National Civic Arts Society, a non-profit organization on whose behalf the survey was conducted, claimed that in a survey conducted among over 2000 Americans of various demographic groups that “Americans strongly prefer a more traditional look when it comes to the architecture of U.S. courthouses and federal office buildings.  Furthermore, the group stated that “the data suggests that the character and historical influence of the style may have an impact on preferences.” More information about the results of that survey can be found here

The proposed Executive Order has yet to be signed.

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