Opinion: Make Federal Buildings Beautiful Again

February 07, 2020
Oklahoma City Federal Building 10
Car­ol Ross Bar­ney, Design Prin­ci­pal and Founder, responds to the pro­posed Exec­u­tive Order to Make Fed­er­al Build­ings Beau­ti­ful Again.”

On the edges of the news this week it was report­ed that Pres­i­dent Trump is con­sid­er­ing an exec­u­tive order that would make the clas­si­cal style, appear­ing like Greek and Roman archi­tec­ture, as the default for Fed­er­al Build­ings. Among the more press­ing sto­ries like pri­maries and impeach­ment, this one may seem unim­por­tant to any­one but archi­tects and their fans. It may seem just a curi­ous idea- but not worth much angst.

This is cause for alarm and a real­ly bad idea. We should all be very concerned.

Our pub­lic build­ings are pos­si­bly the most pal­pa­ble rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the free­doms that make our coun­try great.

Great archi­tec­ture has nev­er hap­pened sim­ply by dic­tat­ing style. Iron­i­cal­ly, even the Romans knew that. In 40 BCE, archi­tect Vit­ru­vius opined that suc­cess­ful build­ings have three qual­i­ties, firm­ness, com­mod­i­ty and delight. All three qual­i­ties vary great­ly by project, func­tion, loca­tion, time and the val­ues of its people.

Since 1962, the Gen­er­al Ser­vices Admin­is­tra­tion (GSA), the nation’s land­lord, has relied on the Guid­ing Prin­ci­ples for Fed­er­al Archi­tec­ture” which were estab­lished under the lead­er­ship of Daniel Patrick Moyni­han. To make new­ly com­mis­sioned build­ings reach this high bar, GSA cre­at­ed their Design Excel­lence pro­gram to stress the guide­lines and take advan­tage of review by peer pro­fes­sion­als. The results do not adhere to a sin­gle style and have been crit­i­cal­ly acclaimed.

My stu­dio has had the dis­tinct hon­or and priv­i­lege to design build­ings for our coun­try through the GSA Design Excel­lence pro­gram. We have been simul­ta­ne­ous­ly chal­lenged and chas­tened by our respon­si­bil­i­ties. For me, the most inspir­ing instruc­tion in the Guid­ing Prin­ci­ples” has always been: It should be our object to meet the test of Per­i­cles’ evo­ca­tion to the Athe­ni­ans, …We do not imi­tate-for we are a mod­el to oth­ers.” Coura­geous, inde­pen­dent and inno­v­a­tive think­ing is the foun­da­tion of our now cen­turies long exper­i­ment in gov­ern­ment by the peo­ple. We need to con­tin­ue to believe that we can make bet­ter, and yes, dif­fer­ent buildings…and that the best and most beau­ti­ful isn’t some­thing already made.

Up arrow