According to a new survey, Americans want their courthouses to have columns, pediments, and brick, and not “glass, concrete, and sharp geometric shapes.” The survey was commissioned by the National Civic Art Society (NCAS), a nonprofit organization that is devoted to promoting classical architecture for Federal buildings and to banishing modern and contemporary design for lacking “traditional humanistic standards of beauty.”
The survey, conducted by Harris Polls, canvassed 2,000 adults (across race, region, education level, income, and party lines, from Baby Boomers to Gen Zers). Each respondent was shown seven pairs of images of unidentified federal buildings: each pairing comprised one building in a classical style and one modern, and the respondent was then asked, “Which of these two buildings would you prefer for a U.S. courthouse or federal office building?” The responses, based on that methodology, led NCAS to declare that “an overwhelming majority of Americans—more than seven in 10 (72 percent)—prefer traditional architecture for U.S. courthouses and federal office buildings.”
The survey follows the news, first reported by RECORD last February, that a preliminary executive order was circulating in the White House that would dictate that “the classical architectural style shall be the preferred and default style” for all new and upgraded federal buildings, and that the current Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture, in use for more than 50 years, be scrapped. More than 11,000 architects wrote the administration in opposition, and protests came as well from the American Institute of Architects, the Institute of Classical Architecture and Art, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation, among other organizations.
As with the survey, the order originated with NCAS and its president Justin Shubow, who was appointed by President Trump in 2018 to the U.S. Commission on Fine Arts, which reviews public spaces and Federal buildings in Washington, D.C. “At a time when Americans are deeply divided across so many areas, it’s heartening to see that the vast majority of us can at least agree on federal architecture,” says Shubow.
With just seven paired, close-up images, the survey offered no context for any of the structures, making the choice a two-dimensional beauty contest. The Brutalist 1965 Robert C. Weaver Federal Building in Washington, D.C., for example, was paired with a 1934 neoclassical structure that now houses the Environmental Protection Agency. The Weaver building was designed by Marcel Breuer with a double Y-shaped plan that curves to hug a plaza in front of it, while the curved EPA building was designed by William Adams Delano and Chester Holmes Aldrich, inspired by somewhere else, the Place Vendôme in Paris. What’s missing are many indicators typically used to judge successful architecture: besides the lack of historical and urban context, there is no way from the thumbnail photos to discern scale, how materials are detailed, the quality and feeling of the interiors (what Le Corbusier called “ineffable space”); how daylight is introduced; the choreography of circulation; whether or not a building functions well for the programs it houses; and factors relating to sustainability, to name just a handful.
To support its findings, NCAS cites a 2007 AIA poll that also found that Americans prefer “older buildings that evoke ancient architectural styles.” But in response to the new survey, the AIA issued a statement: “This is not a question about a stylistic preference for federal buildings or popular majorities. It’s about ensuring a process remains in place that allows for community input and the flexibility to ensure federal buildings reflect the culture and needs of the local area…the Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture established federal neutrality on design styles. They do not dictate any one style over any other. AIA opposes design mandates of any kind and those based upon the advancement of an ideological agenda.”
For now, it appears the Trump Administration’s proposed executive order mandating an official classical style is dormant.