Should all new federal buildings feature classical architecture?

Hosted by

The U.S. Capitol features classical architecture. Credit: Nicholas Clements.

“Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again” is the title of a new draft executive order that the White House is mulling. The order would make classical architecture the default style for new federal buildings (think Roman and Greek construction, like the White House), and thus discourage modern design.

The draft was spearheaded by The National Civic Art Society, a nonprofit believing that contemporary architecture has “created a built environment that is degrading and dehumanizing.” So this potential executive order would rewrite the current rules governing the designs of federal buildings that cost more than $50 million. That’s all according to Robin Pogrebin, culture reporter for New York Times. 


The National Museum of African American History and Culture features modern architecture. Credit: Nicholas Clements.

Today’s rules allow for a variety of styles. They were established in 1962, partly by Daniel Moynihan. “He said … development of an official style must be avoided, and design must flow from the architectural profession to the government and not vice versa,” explains Pogrebin. 

She says this draft rounds counter to Moynihan’s beliefs. “It basically talks in a sort of exasperated tone that these buildings … the styles have run amok. … There have been too many styles that ‘inspire bewilderment or repugnance’ -- that is in the words of the draft -- instead of respect,” she says. “Whether the president goes for it remains to be seen,” 


The Lincoln Memorial is an example of classical architecture. Credit: Nicholas Clements.

Pogrebin says this a kind of debate that’s perennial. She cites the dean of Columbia's Graduate School of Architecture, who said preservation is not just about saving the most beautiful things, it’s about saving objects that are part of our history. 

“There is the feeling that this is a healthy debate to have, and that once you start to create a template for how buildings need to look, you lose that sense of individuality and artistic expression that really reflects a generation and an era,” Pogrebin says. 


The J. Edgar Hoover Building (FBI) is often considered one of the least popular designs in Washington D.C. Credit: Brunswyk (CC BY-SA 3.0)

More: Read the draft executive order published in the Chicago Sun Times. 

--Written by Amy Ta, produced by Angie Perrin