A Clemson Architect Weighs in on 'Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again'

Feb 25, 2020

A potential Trump administration plan dubbed “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again” would demand that all federal building projects costing above $50 million be designed in the neoclassical style. The aim is to unify the architectural style of major federal buildings.

But the initiative has drawn the ire of architects around the country.

“The idea of mandating a style is against the idea of making buildings beautiful,” says Kate Schwennsen, an architecture professor at Clemson University. She’s also a former president of the American Institute of Architects who, along with 33 of her fellow former AIA presidents, sent a letter to President Donald Trump urging him to not make the mandate an executive order.

See below for the full text of the letter and its signatories.

Schwennsen says that while classical styles – which abound on Capitol Hill and recall ancient Greek and Roman buildings – can be a good fit for some projects, a blanket mandate limits possibilities and “cuts communities and locations out of the process.”

Indeed, should the president sign the order, the process would get streamlined simply because there could be no wiggle room in how to design a building. But Schwennsen and her colleagues say a streamlined process is not an even exchange for allowing communities to embrace the diversity of local cultures and styles.

“It just seems antithetical,” she says. “[Classical architecture] is based on ancient ideas. If you believe in the advancement of American innovation and technology, if you believe in putting America first, then American style is not necessarily Greek or Roman style. We’re more diverse and inclusive.”

According to the AIA, 11,000 of its 95,000 members have already written to President Trump, asking him to rethink the proposal.

The initiative to unify architectural styles is spearheaded by the National Civic Art Society, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that pushes for classical designs in public projects. The group’s chairwoman, Marion Smith, has chided modern architectural projects for being the brainchildren of elitists with little respect for traditional architecture.

In a recent interview with the New York Times, Smith messaged that “architectural elites and bureaucrats have derided the idea of beauty, blatantly ignored public opinions on style, and have quietly spent taxpayer money constructing ugly, expensive, and inefficient buildings.”

Smith added: “This executive order gives voice to the 99 percent — the ordinary American people who do not like what our government has been building.”

Schwennsen defends federal overseers who vet the process of building design, saying there have been “tremendous successes” in the final product. But she acknowledged that opinions of what makes a building beautiful or ugly comes down to something subject to the whims of any political administration – taste.

President Trump is still considering whether to enact the executive order.

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  • The AIA Letter to President Trump:

We, the undersigned former Presidents of the American Institute of Architects, write to ask you to reconsider your proposed Executive Order establishing a mandate for federal courthouses and other federal projects. The draft order directs these projects to be executed in neoclassic style of design. We strongly feel that the stipulation of a one- size-fits-all approach to building design would ultimately result in sub- optimal buildings.

This is true whether the design “style” is modern or classical. It is essential to embrace regional circumstances and culture. This investment should ultimately contribute to the evolving legacy of American life and liberty.

The investment of federal funds into public buildings demands an appropriate return on investment to the American people – the taxpayers. That return is not guaranteed by stipulating a singular design style; it is achieved by engaging in a rigorous process that engages the most qualified and experienced design and construction professionals. In fact, it is well-known that neoclassical design often equates to higher construction costs and extended time schedules for project completion.

For every great American architect with a legacy of classically designed buildings (like Jefferson, Latrobe, Walter and McKim) there is a counterpart with an equivalent legacy of modernism (like Sullivan, Wright, Saarinen and Kahn). Both groups contributed enormously to American cultural evolution. Please do not stifle that evolution by executing this Order.

Architecture is not only a visual art, it is a public art, which embraces public input and dialogue. Every community is free to establish its own cultural expressions through the arts. In multicultural communities, the diversity of these expressions is key to the perception of urban vitality and creativity in America (Example: the GSA Architecture Excellence Program where local context and local participation are essential to design parameters).

Collectively, we implore you to encourage (not discourage) the engagement of American communities to continue to search for the freedom of expression. A mandate for neoclassicism, as proposed, will slow the national and community pace of progress and innovation.

Despite this administration’s intended reduction of burdensome federal regulations and unnecessary expenses, this proposed order will result in the exact opposite outcome for municipalities, businesses, architects, engineers, construction managers, artists, and contractors.

Sincerely,

Ronald A. Altoon, FAIA, Encino, CA; Raj Barr-Kumar, FAIA, RIBA, Washington, DC; William J. Bates, FAIA, Pittsburgh, PA; John A. Busby Jr., FAIA, Atlanta, GA; L. William Chapin II, FAIA, Daytona Beach, FL; Gordon H. Chong, FAIA, Lafayette, CA; Sylvester Damianos, FAIA, Verona, PA; Russell A. Davidson, FAIA, Mount Kisco, NY; Helene Combs Dreiling, FAIA, Massanutten, VA; Carl Elefante, FAIA, Washington, DC; Donald J. Hackl, FAIA, Wilmette, IL; Eugene C. Hopkins, FAIA, Ann Arbor, MI; Mickey Jacob, FAIA, Tampa, FL; Carroll J. Lawler, FAIA, Hartford, CT; Marvin J. Malecha, FAIA, San Diego, CA; Clark D. Manus, FAIA, San Francisco, CA; Susan A. Maxman, FAIA, Philadelphia, PA; John M. McGinty, FAIA, Houston, TX; George H. Miller, FAIA, New York, NY; Ted P. Pappas, FAIA, Jacksonville, FL; Thompson E. Penney, FAIA, Charleston, SC; Raymond G. Post Jr., FAIA, Baton Rouge, LA; Jeffery Potter, FAIA, Hon. RAIA, Dallas, TX; Marshall E. Purnell, FAIA, Raleigh, NC; Elizabeth Chu Richter, FAIA, Corpus Christi, TX; Katherine L. Schwennsen, FAIA, Clemson, SC; Charles E. Schwing, FAIA, Baton Rouge, LA; Ronald L. Skaggs, FAIA, FACHA, Plano, TX; Michael J. Stanton, FAIA, San Francisco, CA; Douglas L. Steidl, FAIA, Peninsula, OH; W. Cecil Steward, FAIA, Lincoln, NE; RK Stewart, FAIA, Salt Lake City, UT; R. Randall Vosbeck, FAIA, Highlands Ranch, CO; and Chester A. Widom, FAIA, Los Angeles, CA.