Arbiters of good taste often disagree. That is certainly true of architecture.
Late Wednesday, President Biden revoked a controversial executive order that then-President Donald Trump signed in December called “Promoting Beautiful Federal Civic Architecture.” The announcement from the White House was included in an executive order that revokes a number of Trump’s actions as president.
When Trump first proposed his executive order, it was clearly an out-with-the-new, in-with-the-old approach to architecture. He called modern federal buildings constructed over the last five decades (think boxy, concrete-heavy Brutalism) “undistinguished,” “uninspiring” and “just plain ugly.”
While the specifics are not yet clear, Biden’s executive order instructs the director of the Office of Management and Budget and any related departments and agencies to “promptly consider taking steps to rescind any orders, rules, regulations, guidelines, or policies, or portions thereof” that would’ve implemented Trump’s actions. Biden also calls for the abolishment of any “personnel positions, committees, task forces, or other entities established” to fulfill Trump’s actions, “as appropriate and consistent with applicable law.” This will likely eliminate Trump’s Council on Improving Federal Civic Architecture, which was established in his executive order.
Biden’s executive order may put his administration at odds with the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, an independent federal agency established in 1910 that advises lawmakers “on matters of design and aesthetics.” In 2018, Trump appointed one of modern architecture’s biggest critics to the CFA: Justin Shubow, president of the National Civic Art Society. The organization was the driving force behind Trump’s executive order. It also led a six-year campaign against Frank Gehry’s Eisenhower memorial, which forced the architect to make some changes to his original design.
In a statement to NPR, Shubow, who is now chairman of the CFA, defends Trump’s call to restore traditional architecture to federal buildings. He writes, “our federal architecture has been dismal for decades, and has been designed in modernist styles that do not represent what ordinary Americans actually want.”
Shubow points to a National Civic Art Society survey by the Harris Poll. It found that “72% of American adults prefer classical and traditional design for federal buildings. There were wide majorities for tradition across all demographic groups, including political party affiliation,” he says.
Shortly before he left office, Trump appointed four new members to the seven-member CFA, including Steven W. Spandle of New Jersey, who designed the tennis pavilion on the White House grounds, which was completed in 2020, and Perry Guillot of New York, who recently completed renovations of the Rose Garden and the Children’s Garden at the White House. All seven members of the commission are white men. Commission members serve four-year, unpaid terms.
Writing in The Washington Post recently, architecture critic Philip Kennicott called for Biden to “move quickly to remove the current members.” He writes, “They should be replaced with a diverse body of professionals, including women and people of color, who bring a wide and spirited range of aesthetic viewpoints to the commission’s monthly meetings.”
Shubow tells NPR, “the National Civic Art Society intend[s] to work with the Biden administration to implement change that will build a truly democratic architecture.” He notes that “historically our advice is always heeded.”
Author: Elizabeth Blair