There’s always a great deal of ruin in our republic. Unfortunately, when it comes to government buildings, the last two generations have had to endure more than their fair share. An executive order on President Trump’s desk promises to put an end to the reign of mediocrity in federal architecture. It establishes a “special regard for the classical architectural style.”
The intelligence of this “special regard” is obvious to anyone free from ideological bondage to modern and contemporary architecture. Consider the Tuscaloosa Federal Courthouse. When it was planned, Alabama Senator Richard Shelby insisted upon a classical design. The result is a beautiful building that dignifies those who enter its precincts.
Compare it with the federal courthouse built in Omaha, Nebraska, around the same time.
I remember driving past this building as it was being constructed, my heart sinking as its uninspired form emerged. This building is, at best, anodyne. It was designed by the architectural firm founded by I. M. Pei and demonstrates how unimaginative and mediocre our architectural establishment has become.
Sadly, the Omaha Courthouse is typical of federal architecture, while the Tuscaloosa Courthouse is the exception. I urge readers to engage in a random search of federal courthouses. Look, for example, at the courthouse in Albany, Georgia, another new structure that gestures toward dignity with pilasters and arches but collapses into strip mall banality. Or look at the Bismark, North Dakota, federal building, a modernist pile of earlier vintage. At least it’s not as bad as the Alan Bible Federal Building in Las Vegas, a truly dreadful, soul-crushing design.
The Lloyd D. George Federal Courthouse in Las Vegas is not as bad, but its architectural idiom is corporate, as is that of the D’Amato Federal Courthouse in Islip, New York. These buildings could just as easily be bank headquarters or house gas pipeline companies. The architects lack civic imagination, repurposing the same tired clichés that fill our cities with nameless, faceless buildings.
It was not always so. Type “old federal courthouse” into your search engine and enjoy. These gracious buildings were not constructed in a single homogeneous style. Some draw directly on the Greek temple, an archetype of civic architecture in the Western tradition, as does the Tuscaloosa Courthouse. Others adapt classical idioms for modern office buildings. The Birch Bayh Federal Building in Indianapolis offers a pleasing example of the Beaux-Arts architecture that was once the house style of the federal government.
This tradition of federal architecture that ran from decent to exceptional was discarded in the early 1960s. A young and misguided Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then working for the Kennedy Administration, authored a report that rejected traditional styles that “imitate” and urged the federal government to draw upon “the finest contemporary American architectural thought.”
“The development of an official style must be avoided,” the report stipulated. “Design must flow from the architectural profession to the Government, and not vice versa.” Even at that time these were contradictory imperatives. The architectural profession at the time was dominated by a modernist consensus of stifling homogeneity. That consensus has evolved, but it remains tediously narrow. From the 1960s through the 1980s, American citizens had to endure the de facto house style of modernism, not just in skyscrapers, office parks, and malls, but in civic buildings as well. Since then we’ve been subjected to the aimless banality of contemporary architecture, a style without style.
Executive orders cannot guarantee beautiful buildings rooted in our best traditions. There were plenty of middling federal buildings constructed during the heyday of Beaux-Arts dominance. But the older architectural traditions function like training wheels. They prevent aesthetic crashes and sustain a baseline of dignified and pleasing designs upon which the best and most talented architects can build.
For too long we have been victims of architectural malpractice. I hope President Trump signs the executive order and puts an end to federal subsidies for the kind of banality that disgraces our cities.
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.
Photo of Tuscaloosa Federal Courthouse by Ken Lund via Creative Commons. Photo of Roman L. Hruska Federal Courthouse by JonClee86 via Creative Commons.