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Act Proposed to Combat Architectural Exec Order

Monday, July 20, 2020

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The American Institute of Architects came out in support of new proposed legislation last week that would overrule an anticipated Executive Order mandating classical architecture for federal properties.

H.R. 7604, or the “Democracy in Design Act,” was introduced to the House of Representatives on July 13 by Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nevada.

Some Background

President Donald J. Trump introduced his Executive Order, “Make Federal Buildings Beautiful Again,” back in February. Such an order would aim to roll back a decades-long tradition that bars the government from taking a stance on an official architectural style, according to reports.

The draft, originally obtained by both the Architectural Record and The New York Times, slams the General Service Administration’s Design Excellence Program for its failure to reintegrate “our national values into Federal buildings” and specifically takes issue with Brutalism and Deconstructivism.

The order came to light a week after the GSA’s Chief Architect and Director of the Design Excellence Program, David Insinga, resigned.

TriggerPhoto / Getty Images

The American Institute of Architects came out in support of new proposed legislation last week that would overrule an anticipated Executive Order mandating classical architecture for federal properties.

The stance taken on classical architectural style directly rolls back the original “Guiding Principles,” written by late New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan in 1962, which mandated that Federal architecture not only “provide visual testimony to the dignity, enterprise, vigor, and stability of the American government,” but added that “an official style must be avoided” and that “design must flow from the architectural profession to the government and not vice versa.”

The guidelines continue with: “The Government should be willing to pay some additional cost to avoid excessive uniformity in design of Federal buildings.”

The new order (should it be put into effect) would essentially rewrite the rules for the design of any office building, headquarters, courthouses or otherwise federal buildings contracted through the General Services Administration costing more than $50 million.

If a style other than classical is proposed for such a project, it would need to be approved by a presidential “re-beautification” committee, which would review designs and give the White House the final say.

Such a committee would include the Commissioner of the GSA’s Public Building Service and at least one member of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, designated by the President.

The order was reportedly drafted a year ago and spearheaded by the National Civic Art Society (which is devoted to furthering classical architecture, calling contemporary style “by and large a failure” on its website), and is slated to be put before President Donald J. Trump within the next month, according to The Times.

The AIA released an immediate statement at the time, saying: “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.”

NCAS chairman Marion Smith defended the draft, however, saying that contemporary architecture has “created a built environment that is degraded and dehumanizing.” Further, he said that Americans are in support of classical style, and that the order isn’t calling for a “rigid neo-Classical program.”

The AIA followed up with a formal letter to the President at the end of the month, along with 34 signatures, asking Trump to reconsider the mandate.

“We strongly feel that the stipulation of a one-size-fits-all approach to building design would ultimately result in sub-optimal buildings,” the letter says, noting that that opinion extends beyond any one particular design.

The letter goes on to point out that “neoclassical design often equates to higher construction costs and extended time schedules for project completion.”

What Now

The Democracy in Design Act would essentially codify the GSA’s Design Excellence Program principles into statute, which would ensure that Congress maintain its current architectural neutrality.

“Our public buildings should reflect the rich diversity of our nation and its people,” said Titus, Chairwoman of the Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings and Emergency Management, which oversees the General Services Administration and federal buildings. “They should signify our progress over the years and be as accessible as possible.”

Since February, the AIA has reportedly sent more than 11,400 letters to the White House condemning the proposed EO and fully supports the new legislation.

“We praise Congresswoman Titus for taking the first steps toward a more democratic approach to federal architecture,” said AIA EVP/Chief Executive Officer Robert Ivy, FAIA. “We stand committed to continuing to work with members of Congress to ensure we uphold the quality of our nation’s architecture.”

“Mandating any single design style will undermine the value of the very architectural style it seeks to promote,” said AIA 2020 President Jane Frederick, FAIA. “Buildings—both functionally and aesthetically—must be designed to serve their populations. It’s critical that communities have the ability to decide for themselves what architectural design best fits their needs.”


Tagged categories: Aesthetics; Architecture; Color + Design; Design; Government; Laws and litigation; NA; North America; President Trump

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