In a year in which the United States of America has been ravaged by the worst pandemic in a century and economic devastation that may take generations to repair, Docomomo US is disturbed and appalled by the December 21, 2020 announcement of the Executive Order on Promoting Beautiful Federal Civic Architecture by President Donald J. Trump. As Americans are struggling to survive physically and emotionally, and keep our businesses and communities alive, we are incredibly frustrated by this attempt to suggest to the American people what is and what is not beautiful civic architecture.
“Modernism encompasses a wide, diverse range of building designs and “styles," well beyond just Deconstructivism or Brutalism, but one of the underlying principles of the Modern Movement is that architecture should reflect the spirit and values of the time and of the culture in which it is built,” said Docomomo US President-Elect Robert Meckfessel. “Modernism might have been misunderstood a decade or two ago, much like Georgian or even Art Deco were misunderstood after those styles fell out of fashion.”
Modernist principles have led to some of the most beloved, well-visited and inspiring buildings in the United States, including many in the nation’s capital, such as the United States Tax Court Building, the East Wing of the National Gallery of Art, the Vietnam Memorial, and the Robert C. Weaver Department of Housing and Urban Development Building. While the Executive Order suggests many of these buildings “were controversial, attracting widespread criticism for their Brutalist designs,” we can assure you, they were not.
The prominent architecture critic and writer Ada Louis Huxtable wrote in her September 22, 1968 review “Architecture: The House That HUD Built” for the New York Times:
"The $26-million, 10-story building in Washington’s southwest was dedicated on Sept. 9 by the President, the Secretary of the Department Robert C. Weaver, and General Services Administrator Lawson B. Knott, Jr., builder of all Federal buildings. It was characterized as “bold and beautiful” (President Johnson), “urban and urbane” (Secretary Weaver) and “a lasting architectural asset to our capital city and our country” (Lawson Knott).
They were all right. The house that HUD built is a handsome, functional structure that adds quality design and genuine 20th-century style to a city badly in need of both."
Presumably, none of these exemplars of architecture including the HUD headquarters would have been allowed under this Executive Order, and the United States and Washington D.C. would be much the poorer for it.
In the words of Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, author of the directive Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture, “design must flow from the architectural profession to the government, and not vice versa.”
Docomomo US opposes the Executive Order’s directive to 1. Deem classical architecture the preferred and default architecture for Federal public buildings; 2. Target Federal public buildings that do not meet the criteria to be redesigned; and 3. Suggest the input from the “General Public” not include “artists, architects, engineers, art or architecture critics, instructors or professors of art or architecture, or members of the building industry; or those affiliated with any interest group, trade association, or any other organization whose membership is financially affected by decisions involving the design, construction, or remodeling of public buildings.”
On behalf of the Docomomo US Board of Directors, we look forward to working with our colleagues at the American Institute of Architects and the incoming Biden/Harris administration to reverse the Executive Order.
Vice President, Advocacy