Another classical age of sorts has come to an end — a very short-lived one.
An executive order that former President Donald J. Trump issued in the waning days of his administration, which sought to make classical architecture the default style for new federal buildings, was revoked this week by President Biden as the White House continues its sweeping rollback of the previous administration’s policies.
Though the Trump-issued order stopped short of banning newer designs from consideration, it was strongly condemned by several prominent architects and architectural associations — including the American Institute of Architects and National Trust for Historic Preservation — for trying to impose an official, preferred national style.
Trump’s executive order, which he signed in December after losing his bid for re-election, was titled “Promoting Beautiful Federal Civic Architecture,” and it praised Greco-Roman architecture as being “beautiful” while describing modernist designs as “ugly and inconsistent.” Those who championed the order heralded it as a return to a bygone era of federalist style. The American Institute of Architects, which had said it was “appalled” by the Trump order, praised the decision to revoke it.
The debate was not merely about aesthetics.
“By overturning this order, the Biden Administration has restored communities with the freedom of design choice that is essential to designing federal buildings that best serve the public,” the institute’s president, Peter Exley, said in a statement. “This is fundamental to an architect’s process and to achieving the highest quality buildings possible.”
Michael Kimmelman, the architecture critic for The New York Times, had condemned the measure when it was discussed last February. “Just to have this argument feels demeaning,” he wrote.
President Biden’s executive order, issued Wednesday, instructs government officials to “promptly consider taking steps to rescind any orders, rules, regulations, guidelines or policies, or portions thereof” that would have implemented Trump’s decree. It also called for the abolishment of any “personnel positions, committees, task forces or other entities established” to carry it out.
It remains unclear what broader impact the revocation might have on the new administration’s relationship with the remaining Trump appointees running the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts.
Justin Shubow, the recently elected chairman of the fine arts commission and a Trump appointee, said it was “disappointing” to see the former president’s executive order, which he had pushed for, revoked. As one of modern architecture’s biggest critics and the president of the National Civic Art Society, Shubow was instrumental in bringing the issue to Trump’s attention. On its website, the group decries modernist styles like Brutalism as “blobitechture” and “parasitic.”
Shubow said in an interview that the society “intends to work with the Biden administration to promote change that will construct a truly democratic architecture.”
In opposing the proposed order last year, the National Trust said in a statement that while it values traditional and classical buildings, any attempt to “stifle the full record of American architecture by requiring federal buildings to be designed, and even altered, to comply with a narrow list of styles determined by the federal government is inconsistent with the values of historic preservation.”