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Who Decides Architectural Styles?

As the year 2020 comes to an end, many of 2020's problems do not. A global pandemic remains at large, with the only promise being a slow vaccine roll-out. A great depression lingers and will only worsen with an inevitable eviction crisis and an imminent lockdown. Systemic racism and police brutality remain unresolved. An outgoing U.S. president, who still has the power to help mitigate those issues, has chosen to wield his power of the executive order to dictate the architectural style of all future federal buildings, particularly in Washington, D.C. In this particular Executive Order, Donald Trump set the Classical architectural style as the default for federal buildings and discourages the use of Brutalist and Deconstructivist styles, unless a great reason necessitates otherwise. Can a president decide a style, and if not, who can?


Architectural style is part of the artistic expression of the architect. As an aspiring architect myself, I have my own aesthetic, which leans Classical, but more heavily Baroque. I agree with the Executive Order that Classical architecture is inherently and objectively more beautiful than Modern architecture. Greco-Roman architecture has withstood the test of time in structural integrity and design element, while Modernist architecture is specific to a very new and short era and is not as durable. Over centuries and millennia, Classical patterns and composition principles have been adapted by talented architects into ever-evolving forms that kept up with the complexities of their time. Modernists claim that simplistic forms with pre-fabricated construction details are as representative of our time as the architecture of the Great Pyramids, Classical architecture, and Gothic architecture were representative of theirs. That argument is fundamentally flawed because firstly it asserts that the logical progression of arts and architecture as civilization advances is from basic to elaborate to basic again, and secondly it ignores the rich history and range of Classical architecture. From the Parthenon in Athens, to the Parthenon in Rome, to St. Peter's basilica in Vatican City, Classical art and architecture have been perfected over centuries and can still be perfected. Modern capabilities such as 3-D printing, augmented reality, and motorized dynamism can add to Classical beauty and bring it to visually represent the modern era without stripping away the captivating ornament.

That said, I do not believe architects' aesthetic should be handcuffed by a top-down mandate. If the roles were reversed, and a president mandated we only use Modern architecture for federal buildings, I would justifiably call it autocratic. Additionally, this sets a dangerous exclusionary precedent where strict adherence can exclude other beautiful alternatives to Classical architecture. The Baroque style is more elaborate than the Classical style, and it grew out of the Classical style as a direct challenge to its strict proportions, room layouts, and symmetry, promoting emotional rather than rational design. Art Nouveau is another style popularized in Europe in the late 19th century that promoted more organic designs. Even certain styles mix traditional Classical design with traditional foreign inspiration. By the strictest definition, none of these equally beautiful styles would be considered Classical and would thus be excluded.


In typical modern architectural practice, architects defer to clients for stylistic and aesthetic choices. Overall, most architects center their design around the clients and occupants' experience. The way occupants use and experience the space should drive the design of the space, both functionally and aesthetically. I agree with the Executive Order's statement that modern architecture is not appreciated outside of elite architecture circles. "Starchitects" are even more guilty of prioritizing their style over the user experience. Frank Gehry's titanium buildings are little more than inhabitable sculptures, as he only considers the exterior form, and to the extent he does he only follows crumbled pieces of paper for inspiration. Mies van der Rohe, the father of Modern architecture, had a notoriously fraught relationship with one of his clients. Mrs. Farnsworth, who commissioned his design of the Farnsworth house, was so unhappy with the house that she had to add her own touches and even went to court because van der Rohe adamantly designed her house in his signature open non-partitioned space and glass walls, despite her express wishes for private spaces.

Robert Ivy, the head of the AIA, criticized the Executive Order's lack of considerations for efficient design for a modern office. That argument effectively promotes a utilitarian view of design that disregards aesthetic. The famed guiding principle by 19th century Chicago architect Louis Sullivan is, "Form follows function," meaning use and experience come first, and form and aesthetic come second and should serve the former. However, such utilitarian arguments reduce that principle to "Function only". That argument also disregards the employees' own well-being which is linked to productivity. The most creative office designs, such as Google and Facebook, do not promote efficient design as much as comfortable design, providing ample space for relaxing and recreation. Aesthetics can be another comfort aspect to enhance the occupants' experience, a constituency ignored by both the Executive Order and its critics.


In addition to users, if we consider the client the American people, as the Executive Order claims, then the general public deserves input as well. It is commonplace for any large project to undergo a community hearing as part of the building and zoning approval process. The architect presents the proposed building to citizens of the community, who in turn scrutinize the building, its function, program, size, and style. If the occupants' experience must be considered, so must the general public's who will have to look at it and even potentially be affected by it socially and economically. And with the community's approval, the architect's design can either conform to the surroundings or transcend and transform them. However, the Executive Order fails to make that case and in fact contradicts itself: insisting the architects take into account the taste of the American people while it itself mandates a particular architectural style without regard for the taste of the American people.

If we consider the government the client for government buildings, then it should not be limited to the executive branch, which unilaterally gave itself sole creative control with this Executive Order. There is precedent for government input into the design of government buildings. In 1962, NY Senator Daniel Moynihan wrote the Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture in 1962 for President Kennedy. These Guiding Principles are decried by the Executive Order, but they were in fact intentionally minimal in their input and deferred to the creative and technical expertise of architects. "The development of an official style must be avoided. Design must flow from the architectural profession to the Government, and not vice versa," wrote Moynihan. The lack of expertise shows throughout the Executive Order, through the contradictions, the use of subjective terms in a codifying manner, such as "beautiful" and "undistinguished", and the erroneous inclusion of Art Deco under the umbrella of Classical architecture. Even Aric Lasher of HBRA, the architect of the Tuscaloosa Federal Building and Courthouse which is praised by the Executive Order, says it would be "preposterous" for the government to dictate any style of architecture.

There are many factors that decide style, but a lame-duck president leaving office in less than a month is not one of them. There are ways to encourage and guide the beautification of government buildings, but an arbitrary unenforceable executive order is not one of them. And lastly there are plenty of issues that impact U.S. citizens and require the government's hasty attention, but the architectural style of government buildings is not one of them.


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