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Architects and designers in America are furious over a proposed directive from the White House demanding reinstatement of classic architectural themes for court houses in Washington and across the United States.

A draft of the Order, titled Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again, stated that it would ‘update’ the current 1962 Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture to favour classical architecture for future federal courthouses. This means either austere Greek or Roman Style design. Architects, who only learned of the draft Order in November 2019, argue that it is a stifling of creativity and a backward stance.

The Order went on that all federal public buildings in the Capital region would be subject to uniform “classical” style, in addition to all other federal public buildings across the country which are expected to cost more than $50.

In response the American Institute of Architects (AIA) is sending an open letter to the Trump Administration outlining its grievances, stating that it “strongly and unequivocally” opposes the change. It describes the draft Order as “A top-down directive on architectural style” and has also launched an online petition asking for support from members of the public.

Design for the community – not politicians

“Design decisions should be left to the designer and the community, not bureaucrats in Washington, DC,” an AIA statement declared.

“All architectural styles have value and all communities have the right to weigh in on the government buildings meant to serve them.”

The draft Order does allow for ‘traditional architectural style’ in certain cases. This refers to likes of Spanish colonial, Romanesque and Gothic design. Brutalism and its design offshoots, however, will not be entertained by the White House if the Trump Administration gets its way.

Emerging in the late 1950s and 60s Brutalism is a block-like, plain and non-ornate building theme, employing simple materials such as exposed concrete and simple brick. Many federal and civil buildings were created using this mid-century theme, especially court houses, town halls and even universities.

Previous guidelines encouraged ‘contemporary thought’

The current guidelines for US federal building style were written nearly 60 years ago by a senator for President Kennedy, Daniel Patrick Moynihan. These encouraged “the finest contemporary American architectural thought”.

In the guidelines Moynihan stressed the need for architectural designers to inform politicians, and not the other way around (which President Trump and his team are promoting).

According to the current guidelines: “The development of an official style must be avoided. Design must flow from the architectural profession to the Government and not vice versa.”

Continual clashes between Trump and AIA

This isn’t the first issue the Trump Administration and the AIA have clashed over. But it’s the most personal for the latter. Earlier disagreements, which have prompted open letters, include the US political decision to withdraw from the Climate Change Paris Agreement three years ago, and Trump’s notorious immigration policies. Some critics have suggested the draft Order is Trump’s way of threatening the AIA not to oppose him on other political issues.

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