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Back in August, the General Services Administration posted a solicitation for a $125 millionfederal courthouse set to be built in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. The language in the document included a telling requirement for the structure’s future architects: “Classical architectural style shall be the preferred and default style absent special extenuating factors necessitating another style.”
That language appeared verbatim in “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again,” a draft executive order that circulated in February. The mandate from the White House would have made classical architecture the house style for the federal government.
A similar decree appeared in an earlier GSAsolicitation for an $86 million federal courthouse in Huntsville, Alabama. The bid, which was awarded back in 2019, is even more specific about the Trump administration’s vision: “GSA intends that the design of the new courthouse be neoclassical/greek revival in style, in keeping with other recent Federal courthouses in the State of Alabama.”
President Donald Trump never signed that executive order, which wouldhave banned modernist designs for new federal buildings. After a spate of outrage — it was roundly condemned by the American Institute of Architects, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the dean of architecture at the famously traditional University of Notre Dame and at least 11,000 architects who wrote to the White House — the order faded from view amid the many other crises of 2020. Last week, Trump lost his reelection bid, making the executive order a dead letter.
But the forces that his White House set in motion could outlive his administration: The GSA appears to have adopted a modernism ban, without any authorization in place. What seemed to be apipe dream for admirers of classical architecture back in February now looks like procurement policy at the federal agency that manages office space and needs for the U.S. government. Design is already underway in Alabama for what might be Trump’s first mandatory classical courthouse.
Four architectural firms have been shortlisted for the courthouse in Fort Lauderdale. Among the firms in play is Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), a global pioneer in modernist architecture and Architect magazine’s overall #5 firm for 2019. Designers with SOM are responsible for the Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower) in Chicago, One World Trade Center in New York and the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. Other firms in the running includeHartman-Cox Architects of Washington, D.C., and Chicago’sHBRA Architects, smaller companies with mixed portfolios of traditional and modern projects. The fourth bid belongs toJenkins-Peer Architects, a small practice based in Charlotte, in tandem with Robert A.M. Stern Architects, a design authority whose postmodern style blends classical and contemporary elements.
“Since we are in the midst of the competition, it is still too soon to say what the design will look like,” says Susan Merrigan, senior marketing manager for SOM, via email. Other firms did not respond to a request for comment.
The American Institute of Architects has criticized the GSA policy as accomplishing the same thing as a federal ban on modernism but on a project-by-project basis. Robert Ivy, the institute’s CEO, says the group strongly supports theDesign Excellence Program, which streamlines the way that architects and engineers are selected for federal design contracts. Neither the Design Excellence Program nor the“Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture” (procurement scripture set out by Daniel Patrick Moynihan in 1962) has ever precluded traditional ideas. The country builds plenty of classical courthouses, Ivy says. But they shouldn’t be mandatory.
“What Moynihan laid out was that official styles are not appropriate for a governmental entity. They typically have been employed by more doctrinaire political systems, including the Third Reich and the Soviet government,” Ivy says. “The last thing we want to do as a nation is to be dictated as to an official style of architecture.”
It’s unclear what steps a Biden administration would need to take to undo a GSA classical mandate, since the authority that the GSA is exercising to change its procurement procedures is unknown. Nevada Representative Dina Titus, who chairs the House subcommittee that oversees the GSA’s Public Building Service, has introduced a bill, theDemocracy in Design Act, that would prohibit the GSA from adopting any ban on modernism. She also issued an inquiry over both the Fort Lauderdale and Huntsville courthouses.
In her letter to GSA Administrator Emily Murphy — the same Trump appointee currently taking heat from Democrats for refusing to authorize the federal government transition to a Biden administration — Titus noted that Congress didn’t approve any language about classical design while authorizing taxpayer funding for the courthouses. Further, the appropriations bill passed by the House for 2021 explicitly forbids the agency from implementing the Trump administration’s proposed order. The GSA did not respond to a request for comment.
“Despite clear congressional intent on this subject, it appears that GSA has decided to move forward and implement this major change in agency policy regarding the procurement of architect services for federal building projects by imposing a classical architectural style preference through the procurement process,” reads the letter from Titus.
Maybe South Florida judges just prefer a classical or traditional court design — jurists have a lot of say in the design of courthouses, and they’ve crossed swords with the agency before. Back in the late 1990s, judges in Central Florida fell out with the GSA over the design of theU.S. Federal Courthouse in Orlando. A selection panel of judges and bureaucrats initially picked Henry Cobb of Pei Cobb Freed & Partners (the firm that designed the Louvre Museum expansion), but the federal agency later reversed the decision and went with Andrea Leers of Leers Weinzapfel Associates (the first woman-owned firm to win the AIA Architecture Firm Award). The judges accused the GSA of playing favorites.
“We’ve got some judges who think they should be architects. We don’t put architects on the federal bench, so we don’t put judges on the design-review team,” said Robert Peck, who was then the GSA’s public buildings commissioner, in a 2001 interview with the Orlando Sentinel. (Peck was soon after fired in the wake of aspending scandal at the agency.)
But that kerfuffle was a disagreement over personnel and procedure, not style. And an order requiring courthouses to look the same inAustin,Seattle,Salt Lake City and everywhere else would overrule federal judges as well as local history and taste. A classical mandate is hugely subjective: SOM, which designed a federal courthouse in Los Angeles, could point to the project’s grand processional steps and limestone podium as features that draw from classical design principles, even if the whole thing is topped off by an enormous glass cube.
A classical mandate is also potentially limiting in terms of selecting qualified candidates for federal projects, which are often complex briefs with unique security and logistics needs. One firm, Jenkins Peer, which has prior federal experience renovating a courthouse in Charlotte, was shortlisted for both the Fort Lauderdale and Huntsville courthouses. Payne Design Group, which won the GSA bid for the Huntsville project, is a three-person firm, according to the sales intelligence service Dun & Bradstreet. The federal contracting site GovTribe lists justone federal contract for Payne Design — the Huntsville courthouse, a choice $3.7 million award. Otherwise the firm has largely designed traditional churches and schools in Alabama and Georgia.
“Neoclassicism is not broadly taught in schools of architecture in the U.S., although handsome buildings can still be made using neoclassical design principles,” Ivy says. “The number of people is small that practice in that realm.”
Critics of the attempted modernism ban have largely focused on its repercussions for speech. Some have accused the White House of adopting neoclassical architecture out of affinity for its colonialist heritage of white supremacy. TheNational Civic Art Society, a nonprofit that pushed the mandate into the Trump administration’s orbit,sponsored apoll that suggests that Americans of all political persuasions favor traditional federal buildings over the modern stuff.
Keeping track of left and right in this polarized debate over building design can get messy quickly, though. The socialist journal Current Affairs ran a broadside against contemporary architecture a few years back, putting hard-left populists in the same anti-modernist camp asalt-right trolls.
It’s not a straightforward political issue, says Kian Goh, an architect and assistant professor of urban planning at the University of California-Los Angeles Luskin School of Public Affairs. After all, when regular Americans say they overwhelmingly prefer the classical architecture seen in D.C.’s federal buildings (many of which were built during the 1930s), they may be expressing nostalgia for the grand civic ideals of the New Deal and Great Society eras of liberalism. “We’re on the verge of not believing in the institutions that were cornerstones of our lives,” Goh says. “People are looking for things to believe in. Certainly the built environment is part of that.”
The flip side of that coin might be a distrust (especially on the left) of the sleek sheen of luminous neoliberal renderings, she adds. “One very clear reaction to modernism is still the continued rejection from many community groups, neighborhood groups, in and around cities, who think that large-scale plans have never taken their needs and embodiments into account,” Goh says.
The strictly left-versus-right, modern-versus-classical argument reflects an old-fashioned view of architecture, an artifact from design salons of yesteryear. It’s at odds with the conversation in Europe, wherepolicymakers have turned to the Bauhaus school for inspiration for a new aesthetic movement focused on achieving the goal of decarbonizing the continent’s building stock. In the U.S., today’s forward-thinking debates about design and planning center on social and environmental justice. Even the notion that classicism is fundamentally conservative is mistaken.
“One may not admire classicism, but it really has nothing to do with politics; it was used by the Borgias, Renaissance popes, German Lutherans, British Protestants, and the American Founding Fathers,”writes architecture critic Witold Rybczynski.
Despite the ambiguity about what, precisely, classical architecture fans are cheering for when traditional-looking federal buildings go up, there should be no confusion about what message the GSA is now sending by banishing modernism in Fort Lauderdale, critics of the policy say.
“Imposing a preferred architectural style for federal facilities runs counter to our nation’s democratic traditions,” reads the House letter from Titus. “Attempting to implement this misguided mandate from Washington, D.C., by circumventing Congress and gutting decades of GSA policy and practice without any public notice or hearing is even worse.”
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