At the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, which oversees the aesthetic evolution of the federal district in Washington, D.C., a battle over renovations to the Federal Reserve Building, 1937, designed by Paul Philippe Cret in a stripped classical style, hints at changes to come if a proposed executive order called “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again” is adopted.
The CFA has rarely hosted battles over the design of federal buildings because federal architecture has, by executive mandate, been almost entirely modernist since 1962. If approved by President Trump, the E.O. would switch federal design policy from styles dictated by an architectural elite toward styles preferred by a large majority of the public – classical, traditional and their derivatives. As a preview, the battle at the CFA has at last been joined in earnest because there are now three classicists on its seven-member board.
They are Justin Shubow, James McCrery and Duncan Stroik. Shubow, appointed in 2018, leads the National Civic Art Society, said to have inspired the E.O., and the latter two are well-respected classical architects. Together, they are showing how debate over federal architecture is likely to change. An article in The Architect’s Newspaper, “Renovation of Federal Reserve Board headquarters portends a battle over civic architecture,” by Deane Madsen, gives a taste of the conflict already under way.
Not yet officially proposed, the E.O. was leaked in February, but the Covid crisis has put on hold the vigorous initial discussion over its merits. That discussion may begin again soon as the nation’s capital reopens. The CFA’s deliberations over the Federal Reserve complex are reaching a head just as another issue related to the E.O. is coming to the fore – the appointment of a new chief architect at the General Services Administration, which oversees the design, construction and maintenance of all federal buildings.
If a new chief architect for the GSA is unsympathetic to the E.O., the course correction in federal architecture will be stillborn and will amount to a great hullaballoo over nothing. That will scuttle hope that other civic architecture and indeed architecture everywhere can begin to contemplate the possibility of being beautiful again. So the choice is vital.
Deane Madsen, the writer for AN, found it surprising that the new classicists should dare to rock the CFA boat as it headed steadily toward approval of the modernist proposal for the Federal Reserve Board headquarters, which is a complex of two buildings. The project’s design team, he wrote, “seemed taken aback by the new critical voices coming from the CFA.” He was clearly taken aback too, and was sufficiently rattled to let his journalistic-objectivity mask slip a bit by, for example, describing the three classicists as “clamoring for more marble.” Clamoring?
The minutes of the January meeting describe in detail the back and forth between the classicists and the modernists on the commission. The excerpts below suggest how difficult it was for its modernist members to respond to criticism they did not expect and may never have encountered at previous CFA meetings, or, for that matter, in their entire careers. The minutes reveal the modernists’ inability to respond coherently to the classicists’ pushback against modernist boilerplate, such as the need for all new architecture to be “of our time,” and that glass represents the “transparency” of the Federal Reserve. (No, that’s not supposed to be a joke!)
So please click on the link to the minutes and read the entire Eccles section, “C,” toward the middle of the document. After a lengthy description of the proposed renovations, debate among the seven CFA members begins a considerable way down in the section. It is all quite fascinating.
Here are a few tidbits from the January 20 minutes. Below them are a few illustrations from the proposal, and a link to the entire design package.
Mr. Stroik explained that he does not consider the Eccles Building [the Federal Reserve Building, named in 1982 for FDR’s Reserve Board chairman Marriner S. Eccles] to be concerned with expressing anything about the architect or any other individual; it is instead a building that expresses certain beliefs about Constitution Avenue, the Federal Reserve, and the United States. Any additions to it must respect this, and changes need to aesthetically defer to the existing architecture. He commented that although the presenters had said the right things, he does not think the proposed additions defer to the historic buildings as great marble edifices on an important street. He suggested that respecting the work of Cret requires trying to design as Cret would have, and it is not appropriate to design additions to these buildings in a contemporary mode; he reiterated that a more appropriate design approach, for buildings that form part of a gateway to the city and symbolizes important national meanings, is to defer to the existing buildings.
Commenting that he had expected tough questions, Mr. Henderer emphasized that the members of the design team are in complete agreement with Mr. Stroik but believe they are respecting Cret’s work and its context. He said the Federal Reserve is going through a transformation from a private office environment to an open, modern, collaborative workplace, and these buildings need to reflect that. Mr. Stroik questioned the assumption that the additions need to reflect this new interior environment on their exteriors, and he asked whether this is a more important consideration than respecting the aesthetic of our society’s civic architecture. Mr. Henderer responded that the two go together. Mr. Stroik disagreed; he said many historic buildings contain open office spaces, and this does not require a glass facade or a curtainwall. He maintained that nothing about the plan for the Eccles Building mandates a curtainwall that looks like an insertion; he said that the additions would look like an eyesore on a well-loved building, and that he believes the average person would see it that way. He asked if the designers want them to be considered eyesores; Mr. Henderer responded that he does not, nor does he consider the proposed design to be an eyesore. …
Mr. McCrery addressed the question of adding a new architectural vocabulary versus continuing an existing vocabulary. He noted that Cret had developed plans for the continuation of the Eccles Building, as architect Eero Saarinen had developed plans for the extension of his design for Dulles International Airport in Virginia. He said that when Dulles Airport needed to expand in recent years, these original plans of Saarinen were used without any editing, which he thinks was the perfect solution, because it would have been absurd to contrast the Dulles terminal with a completely different addition. Indicating the Cret rendering, he suggested doing the same thing with the Eccles Building, and asked if this had been considered. …
Mr. Shubow agreed with Mr. McCrery and Mr. Stroik that the Eccles Building is important as a design by Paul Cret and that new construction should be deferential toward it. He said he would support constructing the infill as shown in the historic Cret drawing. He commented on the particular desirability of the Federal Reserve headquarters appearing solid and permanent, as appropriate for a bank building, while glass can be interpreted as impermanent and fragile. He said there is a long history in American architecture of banks being designed to suggest fortresses or castles, conveying that they will stand for the ages. He said that the proposed infill does not appear deferential enough. He also questioned the viewpoint that the proposed additions are of our time, observing that they are reminiscent of Mies van der Rohe’s work from the mid-twentieth century, and he finds nothing wrong in principle with building something more similar to the original architectural style. He maintained that it is not the role of the Commission of Fine Arts to enforce the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for historic preservation, in whatever way they may be interpreted, because such standards change over time and may include a history of building additions that are in concert with what the architect may have originally intended or which may be in the original style. He said that if the Secretary’s Standards had been in place in the nineteenth century, the extensions to the U.S. Capitol would not have been designed as they were, but people would likely agree that those expansions are well designed.
Mr. Henderer offered two responses. First, he said, the goal of the current leadership of the Federal Reserve is that it should become a more transparent organization; second, the construction of the Cret addition as shown in the rendering would result in one large monolithic building, and Washington does not need any more such monolithic buildings. He said the proposed design better preserves Cret’s original massing.
Mr. McCrery said he agrees with the proposed addition’s setback, and the Cret infill design could be stepped back to the same plane; Mr. Henderer responded that this solution would nonetheless not provide the desired transparency. Mr. McCrery observed that glass is often reflective and not transparent. Mr. Henderer said that the team anticipates that at certain times of the day, such as early morning and late afternoon, the glass will be transparent and the historic facade will be visible through the glass curtainwall; he acknowledged that at midday or perhaps most of the day it will not be as transparent as desired.
The next meeting, held by videoconference on May 21, whose minutes are not yet public, saw the commission approve the design proposal for Eccles as amended (slightly) following the Jan. 22 meeting. It put off a vote on the East Building. The classicists, still in the minority, displayed their mettle in the January discussion, and may be joined next year not only by new members with similar aesthetic principles but by a new and more sensible ethos in federal building design, if the E.O. is signed and a sympathetic chief architect for the GSA is appointed. We shall see.
[Nikos Salingaros has a fascinating and in-depth review of the Federal Reserve project in the Federalist.]
Below are images of the proposal, compiled by the design project leader Fortus. The final two images are of the original Paul Philippe Cret side elevation and an unrealized alternative proposal by Cret to fill in space between the wings. Here is a link to the project’s submission of illustrations.