The Trump administration has drafted an executive order that would have a profound impact on the built environment for years to come.
The order, named “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again,” would mandate a return to the use of classical architectural styles in the construction of federal buildings. As an architect who has built a career and an architectural practice focused on the preservation and reuse of historic buildings, I must express my absolute opposition to this policy draft.
If implemented, this change in policy would turn the federal government’s back on decades of amazing contributions to the American architectural landscape accomplished by the General Services Administration’s Design Excellence Program – a program whose impact is felt well beyond the buildings built by the federal government.
The standards set forth by the GSA influence how state and local governments, school districts, quasi-government agencies and nonprofits build across this great country. The Design Excellence Program has produced an untold number of beautiful buildings over the subsequent decades since it was established, and in doing so has raised the level of quality and sustainability of public architecture.
Time and place are primary among the guiding principles that architecture should embody. Time, meaning the collective and broad aspirations and advances in thought that are present in a society that builds. Place, meaning the architecture of a building should be responsive to its site, the context of its surroundings and to its environment.
Designing buildings of our time and place in no way dishonors the classical architecture this policy seeks to glorify, but rather pays homage to those architectural traditions whose design principles are necessarily incorporated into the trajectory of thought guiding design decisions throughout contemporary architecture.
The guiding principles of time and place are also fundamental to the ideals of historic preservation as reflected in the secretary of the interior’s standards, which state: “All buildings, structures and sites shall be recognized as products of their own time.” The National Trust for Historic Preservation has notably issued a statement in response to this draft executive order.
It states: “While the National Trust values — and protects — traditional and classical buildings throughout the country, … the draft order would put at risk federal buildings across the country that represent our full American story, and would have a chilling effect on new design, including the design of federal projects in historic districts.”
As a society, I hope that this American experiment in democracy can continue the amazing work and traditions of the GSA’s Design Excellence Program — honoring the architecture of the past while not seeking to copy it in the process.
Please join the architectural and preservation community in our opposition to the politicization of American architecture with this policy.
William Helm, AIA, is an El Paso-based architect and founder of In*Situ Architecture. Its portfolio includes the design of the Westside Natatorium and restoration of the historic Mulligan Building.