Earlier this year, the White House drafted, but never implemented, an executive order, “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again.” The document chided the General Services Administration for failing to integrate “our national values into federal buildings,” which too often have been “influenced by brutalism and deconstructivism.”
The American Institute of Architects predictably heaped mud on the idea of dictating a national design style (“The AIA strongly opposes uniform style mandates for federal architecture”), and, perhaps not coincidentally, the GSA’s chief architect resigned the week the document surfaced.
The hoo-ha died away. Or did it? Last week, Bloomberg CityLab reported that a recent GSA solicitation for a $125 million federal courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., stipulated that “classical architectural style shall be the preferred and default style absent special extenuating factors necessitating another style” — an exact quote from the purportedly inoperative executive order.
Will Trumpitecture live on after Donald Trump, while the good (ha ha) lies interred with his bones? Architect Warren Schwartz, of Schwartz/Silver Architects, reminded me that it was a young Daniel Patrick Moynihan who drafted the Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture, in 1962. Taxpayer-funded projects, Moynihan wrote, should “provide visual testimony to the dignity, enterprise, vigor, and stability of the American government. It should be our object to meet the test of Pericles’ evocation to the Athenians: ‘We do not imitate for we are a model to others.’ ”
Schwartz has served as a GSA peer reviewer and designed three buildings for the agency. He notes that the guidelines split the difference between traditional and contemporary values. “When you think about ‘dignity’ and ‘stability,’ those words generally describe classical buildings. But ‘enterprise’ and ‘vigor’ point in a different direction.”
Rote distinctions between “classical” and “modernist” architecture are almost meaningless. Is Richard Meier’s spectacular travertine-clad Getty Center museum and library overlooking Los Angeles classical or modern? I would say a bit of both.
Modernism has become a catchall moniker that covers “almost anything,” architect/critic Witold Rybczynski argued when the controversial executive order first surfaced: “The result is that you get courthouses that look like corporate office buildings and atrium-equipped government buildings that resemble casinos or upscale resort hotels. Or real clunkers like the FBI Building in D.C.”
Ah, the notorious, brutalist J. Edgar Hoover FBI headquarters on Pennsylvania Avenue, just a few blocks east of the White House. In 2018, Trump ruffled feathers in the architecture world with his offhand observation that the Hoover is “one of the brutalist-type buildings, you know, brutalist architecture. Honestly, I think it’s one of the ugliest buildings in the city.”
He’s right. The FBI building would win a loser-take-all architectural beauty pageant in a city full of ugly buildings. (Boston City Hall is a famous example of brutalist style.) Here’s the thing, as Joe Biden would say: Trump, a developer by trade, is not a total idiot when it comes to architecture.
I recently spent two nights in a Chicago hotel room staring across the river at the 98-story Trump Tower, which is, as Chicago Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin wrote, “mostly handsome.” The moderny Skidmore, Owings & Merrillbuilding holds its own amid a forest of architectural masterpieces in America’s most stunning downtown.
Predictably, Trump spat in his own soup, adding a 20-foot tall, illuminated “TRUMP” sign about one-quarter way up the façade in 2014. Kamin called the sign “hideous,” so of course Trump launched a Twitter war. In 2016, one month before the election, Kamin revisited Trump’s penchant for flailing at imagined enemies and wondered out loud if Trump would sustain this behavior if elected president.
Now we know.
Alex Beam’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @imalexbeamyrnot.