Of Beauty and Brutalism: A New Executive Order Commands Classical Architecture in Federal Buildings

Marble steps and columns crowned in the Corinthian order, yes. Great battleship-like masses of bare concrete, no. So demands an executive order issued from the White House on December 1, 2020, shorthanded as the “beautiful buildings act” and bearing the formal title “Executive Order on Promoting Beautiful Federal Civic Architecture.”

The 2,700-word order opens on a perhaps unlikely note, citing the medieval constitution of the Italian city-state of Siena and its requirement that “whoever rules the City must have the beauty of the City as his foremost preoccupation.” The order goes on to cite the design of federal buildings in the early republic, when neoclassical architecture, imported from English, French, and Italian models, was all the rage, the 2,000-year-old Roman-built temple called the Maison Carrée of Nîmes, France, famously providing the model for Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, for instance.

American civic architecture, federally funded, followed the neoclassical model for the next century and a half. But then came the 1950s, when, the report complains, “the Federal Government largely replaced traditional designs for new construction with modernist ones.” The General Services Administration, following design considerations approved by an Ad Hoc Committee for Federal Architecture, whose members included the GSA head and the secretaries of Commerce and Labor, issued a report that held that modernist design made better use of space, adding that “efficient and economical construction will also recognize and incorporate creative architectural designs.”

The “creative architectural designs” of the time tended toward the modernist and even the brutalist, a style of architecture that calls for stark, massive building, generally of concrete. A textbook example at the federal level is the J. Edgar Hoover Building not far from the White House to the west and the Capitol to the east, whose neoclassical forms could not provide a sharper contrast with an edifice meant to impress upon the viewer the fact that serious matters of crime and punishment took place behind its uninviting walls.

For whatever reason, FBI headquarters escapes the order’s criticism, while the Hubert H. Humphrey Department of Health and Human Services Building and the Robert C. Weaver Department of Housing and Urban Development Building come in for shellacking for their brutalist forms. So does the San Francisco Federal Building and the Salt Lake City Federal Courthouse, which pass muster with what the order describes as “the architectural establishment and its professional organizations” but not with “local residents.”

Accordingly, the order requires that “classical and other traditional architecture” be used in federal buildings henceforth in order to “uplift and beautify public spaces”; classical architecture must be “the preferred and default architecture for Federal public buildings,” and buildings undergoing renovation must be redesigned to those standards whenever possible. (Interestingly, the order holds that Beaux-Arts and Art Deco are branches of classical architecture, though many art historians would consider the former as the brutalism of its time). The general public, the order continues, is expected to be given a say in future designs and redesigns, though the order takes care to exclude trained architects, engineers, and professors of art from that body.

Granted, many such professionals voiced negative opinions about the order when it was first floated in a draft version of February 4, 2020. Remarked Pulitzer Prize–winning architecture critic Paul Goldberger, the required classical style is of less material importance than its underlying spirit: “the mandating of an official style is not fully compatible with 21st-century liberal democracy,” he opined. The chief author of the initial GSA report, New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who died in 2003, similarly specified in it that “an official style must be avoided” and that care should be taken to build federal structures in a style that is reflective of their time. An added component is that classical and neoclassical architectural styles do not easily lend themselves to modern notions of energy efficiency; a visit to the Pentagon, with its “stripped classical” style, will give an idea of just how hard (and expensive) it is to heat and cool such buildings.

The criticism now being advanced holds to the same general line, with the added observation that the measure, by an outgoing president, is largely symbolic and probably unenforceable in the end. The executive order has yet to find vigorous champions, which may be attributable to the fact that the order was released with little fanfare on a day when the news cycle was dominated by presidential pardons and the struggle to reach concord over a federal relief bill.

This is not the first time controversy has erupted over architecture at the federal level. In 1939, a budding architect and immigrant from Finland submitted a proposal for a building to be constructed on the National Mall, across from the National Gallery of Art, that would house modern painting and sculpture. Although the design, with a curved reflecting pool and swooping ceiling, was the unanimous pick of a committee assembled to select the architect for the project, Congress refused to fund it—and loudly. To this day, the modern art gallery remains unbuilt. Undeterred, Eero Saarinen remained in the United States, and in November 1962 his Dulles Airport was opened to commercial airliners and travelers from around the world. It has been widely cited ever since as a classic example of the modernist aesthetic, hailed for its striking evocation of flight.

But beauty is in the eye of the beholder, as it’s been said. Clearly the beholder in this instance is no fan of the last seven decades of architecture, and his displeasure may well have an effect on the look of future federal buildings.