The development of an official style must be avoided. Design must flow from the architectural profession to the Government. And not vice versa. […] The advice of distinguished architects ought to, as a rule, be sought prior to the award of important design contracts.The crux of MFBBA’s argument is that Moynihan’s second principle precludes his first. By granting authority on matters of style to architects, it claims, the Guiding Principles supplant the preferences of the American people with “the architectural profession’s reigning orthodoxy.” This, it continues, “implicitly discouraged classical and other designs known for their beauty,” and sanctioned instead modernist, Brutalist, and Deconstructivist buildings which “have little aesthetic appeal,” citing work by Marcel Breuer, Mack Scogin Merrill Elam Architects, Morphosis, and others as examples. In so doing, the order claims, “the Federal government has largely stopped building beautiful buildings that the American people want to look at or work in.” To encourage the design of buildings that inspire “admiration” instead of “public derision,” the order proposes that “in the National Capital [sic] Region and for all Federal courthouses, the classical architectural style shall be the preferred and default style absent special extenuating factors necessitating another style.” While this technically leaves open the possibility of non-traditional design, MFBBA sets an extremely high bar for its approval. Brutalism, Deconstructivism, and their derivatives (specified by extremely problematic, open-ended definitions) are excluded outright. Other non-traditional buildings would be permitted to move forward only with approval from the president, who must first be provided with a detailed explanation of “whether such design is as beautiful… as alternative designs of comparable cost in a traditional architectural style.” The term beauty, or one of its derivatives, appears twelve times in MFBBA’s seven pages. Though it is not included in the document’s list of definitions, it is used throughout to signify those qualities that give pleasure to the senses and the intellect. At its core, then, this debate is about more than just architectural style. It is about publicly funded pleasure. The art critic Dave Hickey similarly locates the essence of beauty in pleasure. In his 2009 essay, “American Beauty,” he finds it primarily in the “pleasant surprises” one encounters in everyday life. Such pleasure, whether derived from monumental architecture, a clear blue sky, or a perfectly executed jump shot, often leads people—Americans in particular—to dialog. “Beautiful!” someone exclaims, moved by an arresting object or experience. Others respond, sometimes in agreement, sometimes in dissent. Chatter ensues, occasionally moving toward the consensus from which societies are built. “American beauty is inextricable from its optimal social consequence,” Hickey writes, “our membership in a happy coalition of citizens who agree on what is beautiful, valuable, and just.” In American society, beauty, value, and justice are determined similarly—through the often-contentious debates we conduct in Congress, in court, in the press, in the marketplace, at school, at home, and out in the street. Given the complexity of these collective conversations (and the difficulty of surprising oneself), we often turn to trained experts—elected representatives, lawyers, cultural critics, brokers, artists, architects, and others—to generate possibilities and look after our interests. Though it often seeks guidance in expert opinion, American society is not based on timeless values, religious doctrine, or ancient edicts. It is based on mutual agreement. With the Declaration of Independence, Americans mutually agreed to their collective right to pursue “pleasant surprises” and other forms of happiness, and to tentatively ascribe power to the government to secure that right. This is where it gets complicated. As Hickey points out, every pleasant surprise is an occasion for change, an opportunity to renegotiate our collective agreement regarding what we hold to be beautiful, valuable, and just. Such activity always threatens the stability of the status quo, which is why authoritarian societies often attempt to neutralize such threats by outlawing idiosyncrasy and mandating familiarity. MFBBA adopts exactly this authoritarian posture, though its authors undoubtedly would point to their populist invocations of “the public” and to their proposal that all GSA architectural competitions convene public panels that exclude design and construction professionals as evidence of their efforts to foster exactly the sort of open debate I am advocating. Such arguments would ring false. With their thumb firmly on the scale from the outset, MFBBA’s authors decide in advance the outcome of public deliberation on federal buildings. Their message is clear: When it comes to the most hallowed spaces of our democracy, the American debate on beauty—and by extension, on value and justice – is settled. The authors of “Make Federal Buildings Beautiful Again” thus work entirely on the side of entrenched authority, and rightly recognize the federal buildings of Breuer, Morphosis, Scogin, Elam, and others as subtly subversive. These works signal that the brilliance of American democracy issues from its accommodation of periodic reinvention, from our collective agreement that what we held to be beautiful, valuable, and just yesterday may not align with what we will hold to be so tomorrow. This is not to say that progressive architecture best represents our union, or that classically derived designs can no longer embody American values. It is merely to recognize, as Daniel Moynihan did, that we would do well to continue to draw on “the finest contemporary American architectural thought” to help us determine the best way forward, and to remember that the “dignity, enterprise, vigor, and stability” of the American government obtains from the right of its citizens to perpetually renegotiate the terms by which we are governed, to reimagine the values we wish to uphold, and to freely pursue the subversive pleasures of beauty. Todd Gannon is the Robert S. Livesey Professor and head of the architecture section at The Ohio State University’s Knowlton School.
Posts tagged with "neoclassical":
“The AIA strongly opposes uniform style mandates for federal #architecture. Architecture should be designed for the specific communities that it serves, reflecting our rich nation’s diverse places, thought, culture, and climates. Architects are committed to honoring our past as well as reflecting our future progress, protecting the freedom of thought and expression that are essential to democracy.”Yesterday, Architectural Record published news that it had access to a draft of the White House order which implied that the President wanted the Guiding Principles of Federal Architecture to be rewritten in favor of creating a singular style. Neoclassicism, the design style that the founding fathers chose for the U.S. Capitol, would become the “preferred and default style” under this new rule and would change the core value of the General Service Administration’s Design Excellence Program. Rather than pre-qualified architects receiving the chance to design uniquely-contemporary federal structures for the cities they serve, all future government buildings would instead be reminiscent of the monumental, white construction that has defined Washington, D.C., since its inception, as well as the structures built-in ancient Rome and Greece, and more recently, in Hitler’s Third Reich. Tradition is beautiful, the order argued; modernism (especially Brutalism and Deconstructivism) is ugly. Case in point: the draft order was titled “Make Federal Buildings Beautiful Again.” Numerous classicism-loving groups feel the same way. On Twitter, several accounts called out the AIA for showing its “true colors,” accusing the organization of being opposed to “beauty and tradition.” Fast Company spoke to Steven Heller, co-chair of the MFA design program at the School of Visual Arts, who clarified that it’s not uncommon for governments to impose a preferred design style as a way to indicate authority. Think the projects built during the Works Progress Administration under FDR. Still, Heller said this move by the White House signals a larger issue: “When one design style is preferred over another, that may be construed as an aesthetic preference,” he told Fast Company. “But when it is linked to a presidential act of decree, especially a president that exhibits authoritarian tendencies, then there is reason for alarm. We tend to ignore the nuances of power, like graphics and architecture styles, until it’s too late.”
But it appears that Trump wants to say goodbye to designing for democracy and more specifically, to Brutalism and Deconstructivism, according to the draft. While it’s no secret that the President dislikes Brutalism—he’s previously decried that the FBI’s downtown Washington, D.C., headquarters should be remodeled or demolished. The FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover Building, designed by Charles F. Murphy and Associates, sits directly across Pennsylvania Avenue from the Trump International Hotel, a historic, romanesque revival building. Many hotels in the Trump chain feature glass and steel, similar to those found in New York and Chicago. Several high-design federal buildings throughout various U.S. cities, according to the draft order, have “little aesthetic appeal,” Record noted, and don’t embody the country’s “self-governing ideals.” Among those citied were San Francisco’s U.S. Federal Building by Morphosis and Miami’s Wilkie D. Ferguson, Jr. U.S. Courthouse by Arquitectonica. Both were built in 2007 and stand boxy and tall, featuring modern materials such as metal rainscreens on the former and a glass curtain wall on the latter. Trump’s turn to classicism, though semi-surprising, shouldn’t completely catch architects off guard, however. Back in 2018, AN reported that he had appointed a staunch classicist to the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts (and another one as late as last December) in favor of securing approval on future neoclassical projects. The draft order documents that President Trump aims to create a Committee for the Re-Beautification of Federal Architecture as well, which is reminiscent of the late Sir Roger Scruton’s push to build more beautiful homes and communities throughout the United Kingdom in a self-avowed anti-modernist fashion. The news comes just one week after the GSA’s Chief Architect and Director of Design Excellence, David Insinga, reportedly resigned from his post. He had served largely under the Trump administration since December 2016 and made it clear from the start that he sought to improve sustainability and reduce energy usage across federal buildings. So far, Insinga has not commented on his departure.
Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the most architecturally sophisticated Federal official since Thomas Jefferson, warned against an official Federal style. It’s what dictatorships do, not democracies. So what is the Trump administration considering? Yep. https://t.co/J3wnU8KfJA— Paul Goldberger (@paulgoldberger) February 4, 2020
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