On Wednesday, President Joe Biden revoked the “Promoting Beautiful Civic Architecture” executive order, closing one of the most absurd chapters of the Trump presidency. The order, which Trump signed in late December, mandated that a classical architectural style was “preferred” for all new federal public buildings, criticized brutalism, and caused a lot of architects to clutch their T-squares. But we can safely estimate that in the ten weeks it was in effect, no projects were likely affected by this order.
This is not to say that the debate between classical versus modern architecture is over. The far right has used traditional architecture as a way to argue for aesthetic purity and the supremacy of European design — like Greek and Roman architecture and associated revivals — over all other styles. It’s a not-so-thinly-veiled metaphor for cultural superiority. In this view, modern architecture is cast as a symbol of “elite liberalism” that conservatives should fight at all costs, as a chilling 2017 NRA ad so plainly laid out. Not surprisingly, the National Civic Art Society, which originally drafted the executive order, is a conservative organization whose sole mission seems to be fighting modernity, both socially and in architecture — writing treatises against contemporary architecture writ large, railing against Frank Gehry’s design for the Eisenhower Memorial, and advocating for the rebuilding of New York’s original Penn Station by McKim, Mead & White. With Trump in office, it finally had an ear to advance its policy. Authoritarian regimes throughout history have all adopted classical styles in their national architecture, after all. Why would the United States under Trump be any different?
Of course, this executive order was never really going to change architecture all that much. Trump signing the order when he was a lame duck was designed to satiate the right and piss off the left. And it worked. With Biden’s unceremonious revocation of the order, architects can now get back to more urgent issues in design, like, say, the Green New Deal.