Architecture’s Purgatory: A Response to Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again

The battle royale for architectural expression has begun in Washington. The 7-page draft executive order, Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again,is not the first, nor will it be the last, top-down ordinance or proclamation restricting architectural voice and suffocating the contemporaryimage of the American city.  It is overbearing, backwards, and simplistic – a sweeping absurdity and a cynical, narrow overreaction, citing some of the most remarkable modern federal buildings as criminal.

But it’s less of an Albert Speer-like fascist takeover of American architecture and more the tip of the iceberg, exposing the absurd realities of how America’s architectural process actually works, and the irrefutable power wielded by government bodies over the design of our cities.

Virtually all cities have a planning department which reviews projects for code and safety issues, and most have an approval process involving public input and additional review bodies when necessary. But many have extensive, specific design guidelines and several additional review bodies responsible for advising city officials whether a proposed building design is appropriate within a given context. These are the heart of a massive, confused, and arduous approval and appeals framework that causes projects to be drastically altered, delayed for years, or cancelled altogether, purely for subjective aesthetic reasons, determined by elected officials and appointed council members.

Design guidelines and building laws necessarily guide architects and designers in avoiding centuries of proven mistakes resulting in overcrowding, desolate city centers, vacant eyesores, dangerous conditions, and tragic loss of entire neighborhoods.

But many of these ordinances, usually at the city level, go even further than the proposed executive order, implementing extensive, specific design rules and aesthetic laws restricting the mildest expression of architectural thought to historical imitation styles, curated color palettes, pre-designed proportions, and specific materials and decoration.

Santa Fe’s Downtown Plan requires new buildings to be in “Spanish-Pueblo Revival” or “Territorial Revival” style, while in the Railyard District architecture must “be designed in simple forms that reference warehouse styles.”

In Santa Barbara there are 18 mandatory sets of design guidelines (plus “an acceptable range of Santa Barbara colors”) and 4 separate boards and commissions to determine if the work of a professional architect thoroughly satisfies the subjectivities of all government agencies.

New Orleans requires any new building in the French Quarter to “preserve the cohesive ambiance of the Vieux Carré with compatible, sympathetic instruction,” strongly encouraging the use of their Guidelines for Building Types & Architectural Styles with 5 building types and 6 styles.

Santa Monica’s Architectural Review Board reserves the right to “assure that buildings are in good taste.”

San Francisco’s requirements include, similar to the executive order, “design buildings to be compatible with the patterns and architectural features of surrounding buildings.”

Savannah’s states “Door frames shall be inset not less than three inches from the façade of a building,” to “Building walls on street fronting façades shall incorporate modular masonry materials.”

Downtown Berkeley’s 82-page design guideline includes language like, “Emulate traditional elements reflecting the proportions and detailing of historic elements found on Landmark and Significant buildings.”

A section of Philadelphia’s new Old City Design Guide, though not binding, suggests architects “compose buildings and their elements with familiar patterns and enduring materials.”

Washington DC famously limits the height of any new building to 110 feet, shorter than its monuments.

Most American cities require new buildings, if not in the same style, to complement buildings around them in scale, color, material, or ornament and be of good taste or similar, as determined by the city. Guidelines start as beneficial and necessary broad frameworks meant primarily to preserve neighborhood character, but over time aggregate into dense tomes of specific and contradictory language. This is then reinforced by layers of human review committees making the ultimate decision to whether a building reflects an appropriate style. Meant to save neighborhood character, design guidelines and review committees transform into a political labyrinth stifling architectural expression, stalling neighborhood development, and sterilizing new architecture.

Communities in Switzerland, Japan, and Mexico preserve democratic and optimistic attitudes towards the progression of architectural discourse within the context of thousand-year-old buildings. In America, anxiety to save our existing buildings and restrict new ones leaves our cities in an increasingly uncomfortable aesthetic purgatory, defined by rigid guidelines, and resulting in faux-Tuscan villas in the suburbs, and inoffensive, vacuous apartment building sprawl in city centers.

The majority of the executive order’s intent is in-line with that of most architects and builders – to encourage architecture to speak with the community in which it exists. But the timelessly unsolvable dilemma is how to express that intent architecturally, and we must preserve the freedom to do so at all levels.

A design that “conveys the dignity, enterprise, vigor, and stability of America’s system of self-government” (executive order language) can, in fact, be found in both the Capitol Building and the resonant crown of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. America’s foundational freedom is clearly celebrated in neo-classical monuments dotting the National Mall, as well as contemporary landmarks across the country, from the Gateway Arch in St. Louis to the utopian experiment Arcosanti in Arizona.

Resistance to this particular executive order is a promising crescendo. But the sudden attention to this decades-old problem, though potentially powerful, is frustratingly misplaced. The greater threat to America’s creative freedom doesn’t begin in Washington; it begins in the neighborhood with the muting of the architectural voice amidst confusion, frustration, and apathy caused by self-imposed limitations. Architecture’s purgatory is a sublime chamber, often from where true beauty emerges, through a renewed embrace of a discourse that has driven the image of our world for millennia.         805.801.7576         Los Osos, CA USA