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April 6, 2020

A White House Initiative on Architecture says Austin’s Federal Courthouse Lacks ‘Aesthetic Appeal’

The proposed executive order, called “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again,” would establish a classical style of architecture for many federal buildings

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According to a draft of a new executive order from the White House, the contemporary design of Austin’s federal courthouse is an example of a government building with “little aesthetic appeal.”

The proposed order, called “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again,” would direct a complete rewrite of the nation’s guidelines for federal architecture, mandating a classical style inspired by Greek and Roman architecture as the default for federal buildings across the nation.

Designed by Mack Scogin Merrill Elam Architects, Austin’s downtown courthouse, at West Fifth and Nueces streets, has netted numerous awards since it opened in 2012. Clad in Texas limestone panels punctuated with long ribbon-like expanses of dark glass and steel, the sleek building has different profiles on each of its four façades. When its design was revealed in 2006, the architects described the building as “open, extroverted and dignified.” And U.S. Magistrate Andrew Austin, told me at the time: “We wanted it to be a reminder that the courts are an open place for the public. We think this signals a new generation of civic building for Austin.”

The U.S courthouse in downtown Austin faces Republic Square. Photo courtesy Mack Scogin Merrill Elam Architects
Opened in 2012, the U.S courthouse in downtown Austin added a new plaza that faces Republic Square Park. Photo courtesy Mack Scogin Merrill Elam Architects/

“Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again,” however, proposes changing the Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture, authored in 1962 during the Kennedy Administration by the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. In his guidelines Moynihan wrote that “an official style must be avoided,” and that new buildings should reflect their time. “Design must flow from the architectural profession to the government and not vice versa,” the guidelines state.

That flow would be reversed under the proposed order. “In the National Capital Region and all federal courthouses the classical architectural style shall be the preferred and default style,” the draft order says. The same design principals would also govern any projects contracted through the General Services Administration (GSA) that costs over $50 million.

The draft order specifically targets the GSA’s Design Excellence Program, which launched in 1994 to attract top U.S. architects to design federal buildings. Under that program, dozens of courthouses were designed by noted and forward-thinking architects.

Along with Austin’s federal courthouse, Architectonica’s Wilkie D. Ferguson, Jr. US Courthouse in Miami and the U.S. Federal Building in San Francisco, designed by the American studio Morphosis, are also singled out in the draft order as having “little aesthetic appeal.”

The Wilkie Ferguson U.S. Courthouse in Miami
The Wilkie D. Ferguson Jr. U.S. Courthouse in Miami designed by Architectonica. Photo courtesy Architectonica

“Federal architecture should once again inspire respect instead of bewilderment or repugnance,” the draft order reads.

“Great care and consideration must be taken to choose a beautiful design that conveys the dignity, enterprise, vigor, and stability of America’s system of self-government. Architectural designs in the Brutalist and Deconstructivist styles, and the styles that derived from them, fail to satisfy those requirements and shall not be used.”

The document even articulates that when the GSA holds design competitions, public panels should be convened to solicit input and that panelists “shall not include artists, architects, engineers, art or architecture critics, (and) members of the building community.”

Last week, David Insinga, the GSA’s Chief Architect and Director of the Design Excellence Program, resigned his position.

The “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again” initiative is spearheaded by the conservative National Civic Art Society, the New York Times reported. NCAS promotes the idea that “contemporary architecture is by and large a failure” and that modernism “created a built environment that is degraded and dehumanizing.”

News of the potential executive order alarmed the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and its chapters nationwide.

In Austin, AIA Austin chapter president Eric Rauser issued a response: “Buildings must be designed to respond to the natural and cultural context in which they reside. The U.S. Courthouse in Austin embodies the values of the current Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture as well as reflects the values of our city in many ways including its embrace of public space and regional materials. AIA Austin is gratified by the virtues embodied in this building and the work of all our membership.”

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin
Jeanne Claire van Ryzinhttps://sightlinesmag.org
An award-winning arts journalist, Jeanne Claire van Ryzin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Sightlines.

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