Amend GSA’s guidelines?

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The General Services Administration’s headquarters in downtown Washington, D.C. (Almy)

After February’s leak of the draft executive order to prefer traditional design for federal architecture, many architects, including some classicists, worried that classicism would be hurt by any proposal linked to President Trump. Now, on the heels of a congressional proposal to block the E.O. (if it is ever signed), a compromise proposal has emerged.

Instead of an executive order from the White House doing battle with an eventual act by Congress, why not negotiate over the wording of the Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture? The guidelines were written in 1962 by a young White House adviser, Daniel P. Moynihan, for the General Services Administration, the agency that oversees all federal architecture. (The late Senator Moynihan eventually represented New York in the upper house of the United States Congress.) This would avoid a lot of sound and fury!

The compromise proposal would require only three changes in language in two of the existing guidelines’ three points, but those changes would shift the guidelines from being, effectively, a mandate for modern architecture to something much closer to genuine design neutrality:

  • The first change, in Point One of the guidelines, would eliminate the word “contemporary” from the line “designs that embody the finest contemporary American architectural thought.” Contemporary has come to mean modernist, or at least to mean recent as opposed to historical, in architectural discourse.
  • The second change, in Point Two of the guidelines, would replace the phrase “must flow from” with “must flow between” in the sentence “Design must flow from the architectural profession to the Government, and not vice-versa.”  The phrase “and not vice-versa” would, of course, be eliminated. That is, it should not be a one-way street with the profession dictating to the government.
  • The third change, also in Point Two, would add a phrase to the sentence about consultants for federal design contracts, which now reads: “The advice of distinguished architects ought to, as a rule, be sought prior to the award of important design contracts.” To the “advice of distinguished architects” would be added, “… uninvolved citizens and experts in human and environmental well-being.” The idea is to broaden rather than to narrow input.

These changes would appear to make the guidelines truly neutral between modernist and traditional or classical design. It is amazing how little must change to make the guidelines acceptable to all. In light of that possibility, however, it may be argued that modernists would simply refuse to negotiate, in which case the existing slanted wording would continue to prevail. Or if they did negotiate, and agree to such changes, who can be sure, given the makeup of the GSA, that they would not simply be ignored?

It would be very interesting to know, and perhaps even possible to find out, whether the modernist slant of the existing guidelines was in the document as written by Moynihan or was it added in a later stage of the process as the language was vetted on the way from John F. Kennedy’s White House to the GSA, an independent agency of the federal government created in 1949. Was the agency by 1962 already in the pockets of the design establishment as run by the American Institute of Architects?

My guess would be that the answer is yes, and that the number of classicists in positions at the GSA today is probably proportionate to the number of classical buildings erected by the federal government since 1962 – if that. For the first four decades, that number was precisely zero. Which is why I believe that the “shock and awe” strategy represented by the executive order (if it is signed) is more likely to succeed in changing the culture in which federal architecture is designed than any alternative.

Such alternatives include a commission that would undertake a broad reassessment of federal architecture, and indeed the culture of architecture in the United States from top to bottom. Steven Semes, of Notre Dame’s School of Architecture, offered in February a strong and sensible argument – including a template similar to Britain’s “Building Better, Building Beautiful” report – for such a rethink, “Let’s Talk About Federal Patronage and Classical Architecture,” published by the website Common/Edge. His thoughts offer an insightful reading of the mood in architecture back then, which under the quietude of the pandemic probably has not changed much.

Semes’s essay is definitely worth reading. I wonder what he would think of the proposal unveiled in this post, which came to me with a request for anonymity that I cannot understand but which I have honored.

About David Brussat

This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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3 Responses to Amend GSA’s guidelines?

  1. Steven Semes says:

    David, thanks for the shout-out and I’m glad that my essay earlier this year (it now seems ages ago!) resonated with you and others. Naturally, given my position then (which has not changed), I find the compromise of revising the Guiding Principles to be rather attractive. I don’t think it necessary to mandate a different kind of architecture. Just make it easier for different architectures to come into reality. Many of the user groups for Federal buildings (judges, for instance) want traditional design but have to push really hard to get it. If they would just remove the barriers to new traditional work, we’d see a lot more of it. That would be my idea of progress. Thanks again for your support!

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    • I think it would be very effective, Steve, to make it as easy for the feds to design traditional buildings as modernist ones. For one thing, on an even playing field, traditional work would eventually capture most of the market. I just don’t see anything like evenhandedness being brought into the current relationship between tradition and modernism, either in a year or ten years or fifty years. The modernists have the will and the power to derail any attempt at compromise, and they will use it. As much as I regret many aspects of the Donald (whose policies I generally support), I think the E.O. is the most likely method of bringing real change to architecture, federal and otherswise. Wish it were not so, but it is as close as we are likely ever to get in our lifetimes to a “deus ex machina” in the style wars, so there you have it.

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  2. LazyReader says:

    Better idea, you want classical architecture, build it yourself then rent the office space to the government. Everything the federal government builds, Costs more.

    The reality is the government has PLENTY of office space that by GSA’s terrible auditing and management, doesn’t even know they own. The Fed doesn’t need anymore godamn buildings. They need a massive overhaul of their thought process and a massive cutting of their spending habits.

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