Classicism by Decree: “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again”

Athenaeum Review, Issue 5, Winter 2021

The Winter 2021 issue of arts and humanities quarterly Athenaeum Review is out on newsstands. Its Current Affairs section contains my essay “Classicism by Decree” (pp. 148–155) about an attempted change in the aesthetic direction of federal architecture in the US. Since 1962, the General Services Administration (the same governmental body that was recently in the news for not “ascertaining” the results of 2020 presidential race) has been relying on the Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture with its two-fold requirement of practicality and symbolism in all federal buildings. These requirements were put in place  the aim of maximizing architectural innovation while upholding quality and longevity of construction. The new rules, if signed into law, would mandate that all federal buildings shall be erected in “classical architectural style.” In the essay, I discuss the pitfalls of promoting one specific architectural style at the expense of an open meritocratic competition. This is especially the case if the preferred style is a derivation of classicism, given the contentious history of association between classical architecture and totalitarian regimes in the past century. Mandating classicism by decree seems like a very bad idea.

Update: On December 22, President Trump signed “Make Federal Architecture Beautiful Again” Executive Order into law. Here is a link to the coverage of the Executive Order, across the political spectrum.