Animal spirits of the E.O.

New federal courthouse in Mobile, Ala. (Hartman-Cox Architects)

The General Services Administration, which designs, builds and maintains all federal buildings, has issued a pair of RFQs (Request for Qualifications) for architects to design two federal courthouses, one in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., and another in Huntsville, Ala., in a “classical style.”

Does that mean that the proposed White House executive order known as “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again” has been signed by President Trump and has now gone into effect? I wish, but no, alas, as of this writing that has not happened. In fact, the RFQ for the courthouse in Huntsville was issued last year. The unsigned E.O. was leaked to the press in February.

Nadine Post raised the alarm in a recent issue of Engineering News-Record (“Conflict Heightens Over GSA’s New Design Criteria”). I wish. The journal’s headline writer might have slightly overstated the case.

Nevertheless, Rep. Dina Titus (D-Nev.) has proposed legislation to block the E.O. should it ever go into effect, and has written an angry letter to GSA Administrator Emily Murphy, a Trump appointee who was unanimously approved by the Senate in December 2017. The language of Representative Titus’s questions about the RFQs was apparently lifted from the American Institute of Architects’s misleading denunciations of the E.O., phrases that enunciate a false narrative about the proposal for a new classical mandate that denies the existence of a modernist mandate in effect since 1962.

For several decades after the “guidelines” warning against an “official style” went into effect, there were no federal buildings that did not embrace AIA and GSA modernist preferences. A few classical courthouses, maybe two or three, have arisen in the past decade in Tuscaloosa, Ala. (bottom of post) and, more recent and less well known, in Mobile, Ala. (top of post). They are exceptions that prove the rule. (Is it the water in Alabama?)

So, if Trump has not signed the E.O., what is behind these recent and proposed classical courthouses?

Could it be that popular yearning for beauty is finally breaking through at the GSA? Perhaps architecture, as a field, is mimicking the “animal spirits” of the economy, which started to gallop well before Congress passed the tax and regulation cuts that Trump promised in his presidential campaign. Maybe the mere news of the impending E.O. has set off a stampede toward beauty in the design of courthouses, which has been lacking for 60 years, at least.

Critic Catesby Leigh, in a lengthy City Journal essay published in 2019 before the controversy over the E.O. emerged, describes in detail the disaster that resulted from the GSA guidelines, which were originally written by Daniel Patrick Moynihan before he became a U.S. senator from New York. By 1970, Senator Moynihan himself came to regret their dolorous impact on federal design, whose decline he said was followed by an equally regrettable – and predictable, classicists would add – decline in respect for federal authority in society as a whole. So amply illustrated of late.

Maybe it is not too late to reverse course and reject ugliness for beauty.

New federal courthouse in Tuscaloosa, Ala. (HBRA/Thomas Beeby)

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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4 Responses to Animal spirits of the E.O.

  1. Beautiful Building… 🙂 ❤

    Like

  2. I live and work just a few blocks from the Tuscaloosa courthouse, which is IMO the best civic building built in the US in my lifetime. I think the secret sauce in Alabama is that most of us are like the little kid who’s not ashamed to call out the emperor for his “new clothes.” Seriously, there were several people that went to great professional risk here to get the courthouse built. Don’t assume it’s an easy road when you’re fighting the hegemony.

    Like

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