In the face of a coronavirus crisis, an economic free-fall that could threaten our nation, and the usual recriminations involving all things Trump, the President’s Administration has quietly drafted a federal order that, if enforced, has the potential to change the American cityscape over the coming generations. In February, the New York Times reported that the Trump Administration proposed that future Federal buildings would have to abide by specific architectural constraints, or be subject to an arduous approval process. Namely, new Federal buildings must be built in classical or Greco-Roman style. Think downtown Washington D.C with its white stone and imposing pillars capped with domes and rotundas. 

The order has its crosshairs on brutalism, and serves as a wink-and-nod to the growing concern on the political right that modern architecture is failing to reflect American values. 

Brutalism is a style of architecture that originated in mid-20th century Europe and is most commonly seen in schools, museums, and public housing projects. Although it notionally intended to highlight buildings’ internal structure and material constitution with sharp angles and exposed concrete, in reality, the style, its founder Le Corbusier, and its supporters were ideologically totalitarian.

What happens when “contemporary Architectural thought” is at direct odds with the principles and values that our country was founded and thrived on?

Let’s examine the difference between Brutalist and Classical buildings by comparing the most human of all architectural features: the entrance. In Classical buildings, towering doorways and entrances are exalted with staircases and pillars, welcoming and humbling the visitor. In Brutalist buildings, entrances are deliberately designed into the shadows, the homage to form and function so strong it denies the visitor any contemplative experience: your lunch break is over, get back to work

Today, most remaining Brutalist buildings look austere, uninviting, and frankly, inhuman. 

Who is allowing buildings in the freest and most prosperous country on Earth to look like they came from the Eastern Bloc, anyway? 

The General Services Administration (GSA), the organization that oversees the construction and maintenance of Federal properties, is guided by a set of principles, the brainchild of Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan in 1962:

“The design of Federal office buildings, particularly those to be located in the nation’s capital, must meet a two-fold requirement. First, it must provide efficient and economical facilities for the use of Government agencies. Second, it must provide visual testimony to the dignity, enterprise, vigor, and stability of the American Government.”

Nobly, this creed sought to avoid the implementation of a homogenous national style while still mandating design criteria — and put cost concerns around construction front and center.

However, the most important lines from the principles read:

“Major emphasis should be placed on the choice of designs that embody the finest contemporary American architectural thought. Specific attention should be paid to the possibilities of incorporating into such designs qualities which reflect the regional architectural traditions of that part of the Nation in which buildings are located.”

In spite of its scope, the order will spark controversy because of who is issuing it and due to our current polarized media climate.

Several questions arise: what happens when “contemporary Architectural thought” is at direct odds with the principles and values that our country was founded and thrived on? Thomas Jefferson loved classical architecture because it embodied Greek ideas of liberty, prudence, and justice – going so far as to personally design his own home, at Monticello, and the University of Virginia in that style. What would Jefferson make of buildings like the FBI Headquarters – described by Anthony Daniels in City Journal as  “incompatible with anything except itself?”

These questions are addressed by answering more practical, representative ones: what kind of architecture do Americans even like? 

In 2006, the American Institute of Architects sponsored research to identify the country’s favorite architecture. The list, which filtered out the preferences of professional architects and academics, is not surprising. Of the 150 buildings on the list, only one is considered Brutalist, and another 15 – 20 labeled as expressionist or postmodern. (Five of the buildings on the list are in Philadelphia, despite Philadelphia containing less than one-half of a percent of the US population). The buildings that architects and academics prefer, however, are overwhelmingly experimental, and disproportionately exist on college campuses. 

The order has its crosshairs on brutalism, and serves as a wink-and-nod to the growing concern on the political right that modern architecture is failing to reflect American values. 

The takeaway is clear: sadly, the types of buildings that average Americans like and the types of buildings that architects like are different in kind. If there were ever a case for populist intervention, this would be it. American people like American buildings; ones that reference our history like Independence Hall, showcase our industriousness like the Sears Tower, and exist in the cultural mainstream like Wrigley Field. If the study were conducted and limited to Philadelphia buildings ranked by Philadelphians, I would wager that the top of that list would be populated with buildings like the Art Museum and City Hall, and that the Philadelphia Police Headquarters would not be found.

Architecture isn’t a subject that normally receives national attention, and admittedly, our region only has six Federal buildings that this order would have affected if they were proposed today. In spite of its scope, the order will spark controversy because of who is issuing it and due to our current polarized media climate. Fortunately for us, this may bring architecture into the forefront of our politics, if only for a short time, and force a conversation about the types of buildings we want in our towns.

Our region already has a vibrant community of concerned citizens, city planners, & critics that act as architectural gatekeepers. We don’t have to agree with the binary nature of Trump’s order — classical or bust — or even be fans of the President. We can, however, agree that the intent of the order is admirable: we should construct buildings that people like, that look like people live and work in them, and that represent the country, state, and region as a whole. 

Austin Severns is an active-duty Marine Corps Communications Officer and alumni of Temple University. Twitter: @amseverns

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