E.O. just signed by Trump

EPA headquarters was preferred to HUD headquarters by 81-19 percent in recent Harris Poll. (NCAS)

I have just now learned that the draft executive order on federal architecture that was leaked last April has today been signed by President Trump. “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again” is now entitled “Promoting Beautiful Federal Civic Architecture.” I see no major changes that would affect its purpose of making classical and traditional styles the default design for new and redesigned federal buildings in Washington and around the nation.

This is excellent news. If Joe Biden ends up replacing Trump as president, the executive order will make it easier for him to use classical architecture as a means of unifying the country after a difficult election campaign. If he chooses to reject the executive order or its purpose, he will not be able to do so without publicly rejecting the sentiments of a large majority of the public.

Events at the General Services Administration hint that the old mandate in favor of modern architecture for federal buildings, which was instituted in 1962, has come into disfavor. At least two new federal courthouses have been proposed for construction in classical styles, and at least two such courthouses in classical styles have recently been completed, both in Alabama.

Whoever was elected president – which has not, I think, been factually or legally established – more new federal buildings designed in one of the wide variety of classical or traditional styles will beautify their locations and, as beauty naturally aims to do, raise the spirits of the general public. As stated in the E.O.:

Societies have long recognized the importance of beautiful public architecture. Ancient Greek and Roman public buildings were designed to be sturdy and useful, and also to beautify public spaces and inspire civic pride.

Eight years after Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote the original modernist guidelines adopted by the GSA in 1962, he wrote:

Twentieth-century America has seen a steady, persistent decline in the visual and emotional power of its public buildings, and this has been accompanied by a not less persistent decline in the authority of the public order.

That was the result of Moynihan’s guidelines, which asserted that “an official style must be avoided.” But whether it was his intent or not, his guidelines have served as an official style. He wrote them while he was a counselor to LBJ, which means that the guidelines originated, for all practical purposes, as an executive order. It was no more and no less a “mandate” than is Trump’s executive order, and indeed the idea that a mandate somehow reflects an abuse of power is false: it depends on what is being mandated. Laws passed by Congress are mandates, and so are the regulations designed either to carry out laws or, as any old Washington hand will admit, to bury them in the coils of the vast bureaucracy. Mandates characterize every government, not least our own federal government.

Trump’s signing of the executive order follows his signing last summer of an order mandating figurative rather than abstract design for sculpture on federal premises, including U.S. parks and the grounds of U.S. buildings. Where this statuary E.O. originated I don’t know. The architecture E.O. appears to have originated, as do many ideas taken up by the federal government, with an organization devoted to public policy, in this case the promotion of classical design. If some people are reluctant to credit this E.O. to a recent evolution in Donald Trump’s widely deplored aesthetic taste, they may feel free to credit the National Civic Art Society, whose president, Justin Shubow, sits as a Trump appointee on the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts. No doubt others inside and outside the White House were involved. Shubow and his organization nearly defeated the Frank Gehry design for a memorial to President Eisenhower, and they have also proposed a restoration of New York’s Penn Station using the demolished original design by Charles Follen McKim of the famous Gilded Age classical firm McKim Mead & White.

Whoever is president, if this E.O. is carried out and becomes policy at the federal level, it will eventually have a profound influence on architecture at every level of society. More schools of architecture will institute additional curricula to teach classical in addition to modernist principles and techniques. More classicists will graduate, and they will get jobs at firms that had previously refused to hire any but modernist architects. Cities and towns will be more likely to consider classically designed proposals for local government buildings. Development agencies will allow a more level playing field for projects in classical styles. As more classical buildings are built, the public will learn, at last, that classical architecture is a source of beauty that has not been relegated to the past, as modernists have long insisted, but is available today as a practical alternative to the reigning ugliness.

This is how leadership operates and how society can change to reflect progress in social attitudes. A Harris Poll found in October that nearly three-quarters of the public, as a whole and in a wide range of demographic categories, prefers classical architecture to modern architecture for federal courthouses and other buildings. One startling result of that survey was a column by Aaron Betsky, a polemicist at the American Institute of Architects, that said the general public’s preference for classicism was only natural. He pretty much took it back in the second half of his essay – to which I expect to devote a post soon – but he would certainly not have made such a concession without the publication of a persuasive survey by such a reputable polling organization.

The fate of this executive order is no more or less certain than the fate of Donald Trump’s presidency. The Oval Office could – and looks as if it will – be occupied by Joe Biden, but who really knows? Either way, the restoration of beauty to our built environment is more likely to be achieved if the discourse on American architecture is allowed to proceed without the baggage of American politics.

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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37 Responses to E.O. just signed by Trump

  1. Rob Stephenson says:

    Now that the Election of President Biden has been certified, I wanted to take this back to Architecture – if that’s OK?
    David, I note your comments above regarding Moynihan, and the impact he has had on Federal Architecture. I have also seen some very positive articles on the new Hall at Pennsylvania Station – even the claims that it partially makes amends for the (inexcusable) destruction of the original beauty.
    I am wondering if you have had a chance to see it yet; what you think of it (I saw some criticism of the “mean” entrance; and how you feel about the new structure being named for Moynihan?
    Cheers,
    Rob

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  2. elliswa says:

    I share your taste in architecture. Your political comments (about the uncertainty – as late as late December – of who actually won the election) are repugnant. There was no reason to doubt in late December that Biden won the vote, both popular and electoral, and your idea that Congress might or even could overturn the results on January 6 was erroneous. I live in Canada and am a dual citizen – like Jane Jacobs, by the way, who spent her last years in Toronto. Jane Jacobs, whom we both admire as an urbanist, was – from an American perspective – on the political left. The idea that leftists are modernists and the conservatives are traditionalists in architecture is not remotely close to the truth. The truth is that there is very little contemporary correlation between political ideology and taste. And Donald J. Trump, before he began his impersonation of a conservative president, judging from the architecture he has actually financed, was a modernist. A look at the architecture of the many Trump Towers makes this obvious.

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    • I agree of some of what you say, Elliswa. Architectural style does not easily break down by political belief. Trump came up as a modernist, generally, but as president he may have had a change of heart regarding federal architecture, with or without reforming his previous tastes. He definitely was not a conservative but became one, I believe because of the brutal unfairness of the establishment to him in 2016. He may have won in 2020, and may have been able to secure his victory in the courts or in Congress, but it was not to be. The horrid attack on the Capitol did not help him, even though he did not direct it. He certainly inspired it, but that was not in his control. He has now lost, but not fair and square, and may have more to make of it when he is out of office. Who knows?

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  3. Craig Coonrod says:

    Well your column just went south for me David. What’s next David a position with Fox news? Stay with what you know best, classical architecture .

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  4. The Oaked Ridge says:

    It’s interesting that they included Art Deco in the text of the order: “Classical architecture encompasses such styles as Neoclassical, Georgian, Federal, Greek Revival, Beaux-Arts, and Art Deco”. Generally Art Deco is not included under the umbrella of “Classical” architecture.

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    • I thought that was odd as well, Oaked. Art Deco should be classified as a form of traditional architecture, not classical architecture. After all, Victorian and the Gothic are excluded from this list of architecture that encompasses the classical, and they are arguably more in its spirit than Art Deco. I suppose the intent is to expand the tent and, as Andres Duany might put it, recapture territory lost to the modernists, some of whom claim Art Deco is in their camp. In any event, this supposed misclassification would qualify as a minor quibble in an otherwise stellar document.

      Like

  5. Steve says:

    All David was saying is that the Presidential/Vice Presidential election process is not over until the Congress verifies or denies the Electoral College vote. A denial would NOT be a “coup” in any way, shape, or form. It is a constitutional option open to Congress since the beginning of the republic. Once they act, it is over.

    Granted, it is highly unlikely they will deny the Electoral College vote to the extent of reducing Biden’s vote to under 270 and the President’s to 270 or more. We shall see.

    Can we 1) stop the attack the President stuff and 2) move on to architecture?

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  6. Gaither Pratt says:

    David, I don’t have time to play whack-a-mole with conspiracy theorists who will not be convinced by facts. That’s a fruitless, unwinnable exercise. I don’t think there is any dispute that there is some degree of infinitesimally small amount of voter fraud, that’s been stated before. That’s not unique to the 2020 presidential election, that has stretched back to biblical times. But there is no evidence of widescale fraud in the proportion that would affect the outcome of this election. That is what this discussion is about. Do you believe it is possible that the scale of fraud was so large that Joe Biden’s victory is illegitimate and the election should be overturned?

    The argument about a stolen election for only the president makes no sense. If the deep state, or child-eating satanic democrats, or Hugo Chavez’s corpse, or whoever, were so clever as to pump 10 million fake ballots into the system for Biden, undetected. Why did the Democrats lose seats in the House of Representatives, and why did they not gain control of the Senate? Where is the electdion fraud there? How did Republicans get elected by the same rigged system?

    Trump lost. His feelings may be hurt, but he needs to face the reality. His delusional conspiracy theories will not change the facts. Neutrality in the face of Trump & Co’s baseless claims of widespread fraud is condoning the lie that the election is still undecided.

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    • Ditto on whack-a-mole, Gate. I’ll only say that 10 million fake votes (if there were that many) have not gone undetected, merely unreported – covered up, as Nixon tried to cover up Watergate, except in this case it’s the press that’s the villain. As in the Russia hoax, the impeachment hoax and the Hunter hoax. I speak with regret as a member of the press, but I am not delusional. I don’t think I am, anyway. I think you are. I may be wrong. You may be wrong. Yes, I do believe the fraud may be large enough to change the result. We just don’t know yet, and that’s all I was saying on the subject in my post.

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      • Anonymous says:

        David, I appreciate your commentary about architecture. You have a lot of insight. Please do not completely undermine the core of your message which is about architecture. You have much to say there. Regarding the election? Your comments are utterly insane and grotesque. Sorry. But you are playing into an obnoxious right wing conspiracy lunacy and it is really disgusting. You will destroy your credibility if you continue in that vein. Please stick with architecture. For example, I would have posted your article here on Facebook, but not with your ridiculous asides supporting the endless lies of the traitors trying to steal the election

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        • Michael Behrendt says:

          This is my comment above. Michael Behrendt

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        • I disagree with you on both counts, Michael. I think there was an attempt to steal the election, and I don’t think my neutral stance on whether it succeeded or not will undermine the credibility of my posts. Maybe it will; if so, I will gladly take that risk because of the vital importance of the matter. The “conspiracy” you accuse me of imbibing seems quite on the other side. I do not intend my blog to be political, but I also cannot remain entirely quiet with our democracy in such peril as the evidence seems to suggest.

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  7. barry schiller says:

    David you made a good point about the EO and much as I dislike Trump for so many reasons I applaud him for it. But I think you ruined the post and lost the main point with the unnecessary and unjustified agnosticism about the election which is settled beyond a reasonable doubt. You were not “neutral” you were engaging in Trump denialism with little basis in reality and it needlessly undermined the point about defending the order for more beautiful Federal buildings going forward.

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  8. steve bass says:

    Judging by the comments below, the anger and divisiveness that this president has brought to the political surface will now be directed, in part, at the classical movement – and just when, as you point out in your article, the movement was making actual progress through professional debate below the public surface – where the only lasting progress can take place. Now modernist forces will badger the next administration to make appointments and statements that reverse that progress. Fasten your seat belts.

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    • Steve, I disagree that my mild and neutral comments on the election undermine my post. I disagree also that classicism will be unduly hindered by Trump’s association with the E.O., whether it is implemented or not. Classicism has not been unduly hindered by decades of association by some with Nazism, and, if beauty results from the E.O. it will no more be “blamed” on Trump than modernism’s failures are blamed on JFK.

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  9. Steve says:

    Well written, David.

    Let’s hope the radical left doesn’t pressure Biden to undo this great action by President Trump.

    We know they hate our history and our statues.

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    • Gaither Pratt says:

      Steve, “the radical left” hates your history and statues? What history and what statues?

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      • Steve says:

        What history and statues?!
        The widespread attack on selected parts of American history and the criminal destruction of public statues over the summer. As an excuse for the criminal attacks, Pelosi stated, “Well, I am not concerned about statues and history…”. AOC said worse, of course.
        I rest my case.

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        • Gaither Pratt says:

          Steve, Are you referring to statues of Confederate Generals and Confederate Monuments? Do you think that they should have remained in place? What is the history of those statues anyway? Why were they put there in the first place?

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          • Steve says:

            First, destruction or damage of ANY private or public statue or other property is CRIMINAL.

            Second, the statues destroyed or attacked include Confederate leaders, Columbus, Lincoln, Grant, saints, Jesus, abolitionist leaders, and others.

            Your question is “loaded”. What I think is irrelevant. That’s what we have city, county, state, and federal government to decide…not mobs of thugs.

            Should we go back in history and apply today’s thoughts or values? No.
            Should we eliminate historical facts or figures to make it what we want it to be? No.
            Who would survive? The flavor of the day?
            Facts – not feelings.

            For the sake of architecturehereandthere and out of respect for David, I will terminate further discussion of non-architecture topics.

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    • Michael Behrendt says:

      What a gratuitous ignorant comment. Please desist from such stupidity.

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  10. stanleyxweiss@gmail.com says:

    I think they have other more pressing things on the agenda, don’t you …

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

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    • Perhaps so, Stan, but I write about architecture, not about the many other pressing issues facing the nation. And yes, I do think architecture is one of them, though arguably not the most pressing of them.

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  11. Gaither Pratt says:

    David, The election has been factually and legally established. The electoral college has certified the results, and the Supreme Court and Attorney General of the United States (Trump Appointees) have stated that there was no widespread voter fraud on the scale that would have any affect on the outcome. Similarly Republican Governors and Election officials in disputed states also agree. President-Elect Joe Biden won to popular vote and the electoral college vote, conversely, Donald Trump lost the presidential election. It has been decided. Do you doubt or dispute this? Trafficking in conspiracy theories and lies does a disservice to your good work, but sowing doubt about your intentions or judgement. I would urge you to strike that sentence and those sentiments from the article. They detract from your otherwise reasonable position, polluting the rest of your argument. Demonstrate leadership in the face of the reigning ugliness to change society and reflect progress in social attitudes, please.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Gate, what you say looks like it may be true, as I acknowledged, but we don’t know for sure, factually or legally, whether it is true or not. Not yet. The Dec. 14 vote of the electoral college may be overturned by Congress on Jan. 6. Most of your other assertions of fact are either not factual or are not dispositive. My post is strictly neutral on the subject. Are we still allowed to disagree in this country?

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      • Anonymous says:

        This is delusional that the will of the people will be overturned. The election is decided. Be real. This isn’t about disagreements, it’s about existing in reality.

        It also is superfluous to your misguided thesis that this EO will somehow knit the country back together, and a wholly legitimate striking of this EO by the Biden Administration will somehow rip the country apart.

        Again. Please. Get some perspective.

        A country as vast and strong as the US deserves a range of buildings, and hardening back to some fairytale past isn’t a legitimate design strategy.

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      • Gaither Pratt says:

        David, Under what pretense would congress overturn the vote of the Electoral College? And would you remain neutral if they did? That would be a coup. Biden was fairly elected, this is a fact. 50+ court hearings later, there is no evidence and no fraud. Just because Trump lost and his supporters are unhappy, does not mean they can make up lies and that the election can be overturned. You are getting into Q-anon territory here, and by giving support to baseless claims, you are not remaining neutral.

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        • Gate, you have no facts in this comment. There is evidence of fraud if not necessarily proof of enough fraud to overturn the result. If that were to be demonstrated, it would constitute a reason, indeed a very good reason, to overturn the vote of the electoral college. The court hearings addressed procedure, and did not hear evidence. This is uncharted territory. We don’t know what will happen. My post was neutral as to who won the election. Your claim of baseless claims is itself baseless. Every time a news anchor claims there is “no evidence of fraud,” I grow more and more certain that they themselves believe that such evidence exists, at least to some degree, which means that they are lying to their audience. It is the perfect example of a “tell.”

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          • Gaither Pratt says:

            David, everyone acknowledges that there is “some” fraud. This always happens and is not in dispute. There is no evidence of widespread voter fraud on the scale that would reverse the course of the election or nullify tens of millions of votes. Do you disagree?

            The governors and election officials (democrats and repubicans) in all of the states have certified this. There have been over 50 court cases at all levels that have been lost due to lack of any evidence. The Supreme Court and the Attorney General have stated that there is no evidence of widespread voter fraud. The most brilliant legal minds in America, Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell, have looked at this exhaustively and have not been able to provide evidence. Why do you think that there is? What evidence do you have?

            Gate – I am just a guy sitting in a house in Providence. I have no evidence of anything. But I have paid close attention to what is being said across the spectrum by media and other commentators, and you are now the first person, among those who think Biden’s victory is a fait accompli, to have admitted there “was some fraud.” You are wrong: Nobody among commentators who claim that Biden is elected is making such an acknowledgement. Nobody. They are all saying there was no evidence of fraud: No evidence. Not no proof of fraud but no evidence. If the preponderance commenters were saying there was no evidence of widespread fraud, then I would not have made mention of the election results in my post, because there would be no indication that another fake narrative was being defended. But there is lots of evidence of fraud, it has just not been shown to have been enough to turn the election. It has not been shown, perhaps, because election officials have no incentive to admit that they failed to protect the integrity of their elections. Or because judges have not permitted the evidence to be presented in their courts but have ruled on procedural matters from the Supreme Court on down. Lots of evidence of fraud has been presented by Giuliani, Powell and others, but at legislative panels and in non-legacy media, not in courtrooms where they have not been allowed to present their case. None of this evidence is being reported on the evening news. I watch NBC every night. The evidence of standard-issue fraud exists in abundance, but perhaps an even stronger case is made by those who point out the anomalies in Biden’s supposed victory. (See link below.) Combine all of this with censorship of genuine news (such as that regarding Hunter Biden) by the traditional media and social media platforms and you certainly enough evidence to justify the raising of eyebrows if not to prove the election was stolen. The very phrase “no evidence of fraud,” which is constantly repeated and set off by news anchors for emphasis is a tell that even they don’t believe in the absence of such evidence. I could go on but I think it is easily established that there is enough evidence of fraud that, under normal circumstances, our news media would be all over it, night and day. Instead, the evening news is all covid all the time – so as not to leave space to report the obvious elephant in the room. Anyway, that’s my assessment, though I’m sure you will refuse to be convinced.

            Column from The Federalist on Biden’s brilliant victory: https://thefederalist.com/2020/11/23/5-more-ways-joe-biden-magically-outperformed-election-norms/

            Like

      • Michael Behrendt says:

        That’s bullshit David. You are trafficking in lies and conspiracies.

        Like

  12. Anonymous says:

    Joe Biden has been certified the next President by the Electoral College.

    Come on.

    Like

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