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Critics blast ‘absurd’ plan to put ‘garish’ Trump in charge of architectural style for all new federal buildings

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Composite image, White House picture of President Donald Trump and Mar-a-Lago

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Terry H. Schwadron
Terry H. Schwadron

In a fascinating article, The New York Times shared the news that the Trump administration is proposing an executive White House order to decide on architectural style for all new federal buildings — to make them look akin to the classical style of the White House itself.

It’s less the choice in architecture itself that is striking as the fact that the White House believes that there needs to be a singular approach set by Donald Trump, a guy who has proved himself to be as uninterested in the arts as could be possible. But architecture? I guess as a builder, Trump sees himself as an expert.

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Will the White House insist on gold drapes next?

By picking a “classical” approach inspired by Greek and Roman architecture as the default, Trump would at once underscore a kind of “conservative” approach to architecture and step on the creativity of the nation’s architectural artists who might try to match say form and function of a new building.

Plus, it is a little late for a call to uniformity, isn’t it?  Do we think that the Smithsonian Institution (which is exempted) headquarters and the Air and Space Museum were designed by the same person? Or should have been?

The Times described a draft of an executive order called “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again” that was spearheaded by the National Civic Art Society, a nonprofit group that believes contemporary architecture has “created a built environment that is degraded and dehumanizing.”  The order would govern the design of office buildings, headquarters, and courthouses, or any federal building project contracted through the General Services Administration that costs over $50 million.

Hey, Mr. President, don’t stop here. You could as easily dictate that all painting now be portraits or landscapes in figurative styles, that all music be Kid Roc-inspired knockoffs, that all movies be G-rated, and that they all mention you in a positive light at least once.

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This president has distinguished himself by turning his back on attending the annual Kennedy Center awards for performing artists, by cutting National Endowment for the Arts money to zero each year of his presidency until overturned by Congress, by saluting the biggest physical architectural statement by this government as a Wall to keep immigrants from gaining access to the southern border.

Here’s what the architectural whisperers said: “For too long architectural elites and bureaucrats have derided the idea of beauty, blatantly ignored public opinions on style, and have quietly spent taxpayer money constructing ugly, expensive, and inefficient buildings,” according to Marion Smith, the group’s chairman. “This executive order gives voice to the 99 percent — the ordinary American people who do not like what our government has been building.”

The executive order would instead put national aesthetic opinion in the hands of D0nald Trump, the man who has brought us the Trump Towers and other buildings known for their garishness.

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Architects told The Times this squashes creativity and imbues the president with power that doesn’t belong with him. The Times quoted Roger Lewis, architect and retired professor of architecture. “At the most fundamental level it’s a complete constraint on freedom of expression. This notion that the White House has expertise or knowledge or understanding of architecture and design sufficient to allow them to mandate that all federal buildings be classically styled is absurd.”

Trump has criticized the Federal Bureau of Investigation headquarters on Pennsylvania Avenue whose appearance Trump has criticized as brutalist. At the National Gallery of Art, one building finished in 1940 reflects classical style, and one completed in 1978 is triangular and more modern.

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Actually, the executive order would set a high bar to get approval for any style other than classical, requiring approval by a presidential “re-beautification” committee and final okay by the White House.

According to The times, the order also accuses the government’s Design Excellence Program, which directs the federal government’s multibillion-dollar building program, of encouraging the proliferation of modern styles, arguing that “the federal government has largely stopped building beautiful buildings the American people want to look at or work in.”

The administration’s draft order, which was obtained by The New York Times, suggests an abrupt reversal of that ethos: “Classical and traditional architectural styles have proven their ability to inspire such respect for our system of self-government. Their use should be encouraged.”

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Trump’s style at his own personal properties favors gilded furniture, marble flooring, and Louis XIV-style flourishes. But two of his higher-profile business projects, including the Trump Towers at Columbus Circle in New York City and The Trump Tower in Chicago, were built with modernist influences, noted The Times.

I agree with Michael Kimmelman, The Times’ architecture critic, who said “Just to have this argument feels demeaning,” adding, “Who knows what classicism ultimately means, but the draft order makes it come across as awfully prim and petty.”

From where I sit, the discussion of an executive order for architectural style fits perfectly in the current efforts at suffocating any thoughts that challenge Trump’s own. In TrumpWorld, there is no reason for specialized knowledge or even appreciation, no science or art work that can top the Trump gut, and a need to lean heavily on ever-recreating the decisions of the past.

The only good news in the proposed executive order is that Trump has not insisted on having his name emblazoned on building fronts.

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