In February 2020, President Trump proposed an executive order which he referred to as “Make Federal Buildings Beautiful Again.” As the name implies, this executive order would place restrictions on the architectural design of federal buildings in Washington D.C. by requiring any new buildings constructed to be of “classical” design.
This executive order was instituted in December of 2020 and rebranded under the title of “Promoting Beautiful Federal Civic Architecture.” The order specifically targeted modern federal buildings constructed over the last 50 years by describing them as “uninspiring”, “undistinguished” and “just plain ugly.” Promoters of this new executive order included Marion Smith of the National Civic Art Society (NCAS). According to Mr. Smith, the various forms of modern architecture found around the capital are distasteful, disgusting, and “not what our founders had in mind.” The NCAS has been the driving force behind this executive order and were obviously happy when it was enacted in December. Justin Shubow, the president of NCAS, offered some remarks about the order stating, “Since the mid-20th century, Modernist mandarins controlling the government architecture have been forcing ugly designs upon us.”
The problem with this order is that it directly attacks one of the characteristics that has always been associated with art – Progressivism. The order is not targeted toward actually changing the design of federal buildings. Rather, it is being used to attack modern art and suppress the ideals that it stands for. The supporters of this order only wish to retain the classical architecture that is found around the capital because for them it represents a distant past that is always superior to the present and cannot be interrogated. It’s not the style they are concerned about, it’s the time period and the state of the country they embrace when these buildings were constructed. For them, buildings constructed in modern styles demonstrate a shift towards more progressive ideals both culturally and politically. This is the battle they wish to fight, not a critique of style.
Additionally, the idea that anyone alive today could truly understand “what our founders had in mind” is completely irrational. Even so, a statement such as this demonstrates a complete disregard for the fact that our founders were progressives themselves! A prime example can be seen in Thomas Jefferson’s residence known as Monticello. Many different styles were incorporated into the construction of Monticello, but ultimately it was Jefferson’s goal to create a dwelling that symbolized a culmination of refined architectural designs. Therefore, not only is it deceptive to believe anyone could truly understand “what our founders had in mind,” but it is counterintuitive to assume that a progressive group of individuals would prefer to embrace outdated designs as opposed to new and progressive forms of modern architecture.