The American Institute of Architects (AIA) is embarking on a significant new push for passage of the Democracy in Design Act, first proposed in 2020. Initially introduced by Rep. Dina Titus (D-Nevada) in response to efforts by former President Trump to mandate Neoclassical design for federal buildings, the bill would codify federal design guidelines dating to the 1960s and bar the federal government from mandating the use of particular architectural styles.
In April, the AIA will hold a “Hill Day” for its members, during which architects will advocate for the bill in a bid to add co-sponsors to it—as well as Senators willing to see it through in the Senate. Backers hope to pass it before the end of the year, and the bill recently received a boost when Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, the at-large representative from Washington, D.C.—which might face the most immediate impacts of the bill—signed on as its third co-sponsor.
“We wanted to make sure that the Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture from 1962 were finally enshrined into law,” says Kara Kempski, director of federal relations at the AIA. “That was something that never carried the force of law before. It just had been precedent for so long that it hadn't really been challenged in the way that we saw it challenged in 2020.”
If passed and signed into law by President Biden, the Democracy in Design Act will ensure that the Biden-Harris administration’s Build Back Better efforts are designed according to the 2022 version of the 1962 Guiding Principles, allowing architectural styles to be chosen autonomously as opposed to being mandated from Washington.
“The federal government should be neutral in all questions of design; there shouldn't be a national preferred design style—that should flow from the design community and be allowed to evolve,” Kempski says. “American architectural innovation is important and it’s been furthered by that neutrality.”
A little more than two years ago, RECORD broke the story of a draft executive order prepared for the Trump administration that would mandate Neoclassical architecture for federal courthouses and all buildings within the National Capital Region, while banning the government from building in the Brutalist or Deconstructivist styles. As one of the final measures of his administration, in December 2020, former President Trump signed the order into law—only to see it reversed just weeks later by his successor.
Under Trump’s order, new federal buildings were required to be shoehorned into traditional designs instead of addressing contemporary concerns and incorporating sustainable building practices. On top of this, the order would have designated a committee to approve designs for the General Services Administration (GSA)—an authoritarian overlay likely included by one of former President Trump’s appointees to the Commission of Fine Arts (CFA) angling for a position on the committee.
While the order was met with almost instant disbelief and derision among practitioners and architecture critics—with its supporters trending toward traditionalist practitioners, some of whom would have benefited directly with new commissions—a more measured reaction saw the creation of a new bill designed to prevent stylistic edicts: the Democracy in Design Act. Working with representatives from the AIA’s advocacy group, Rep. Titus introduced the first version of the act in July 2020.
The act proposes turning the suggestions of the Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture—which federal agencies have largely followed since 1962—into law. Specifically, the bill directs the GSA to adhere to the principles and to establish “minimum standards by which the [GSA] Administrator shall construct and acquire public buildings in the United States.”
Written for the Kennedy administration by Daniel Patrick Moynihan—then assistant secretary of the Department of Labor and later a senator representing New York—the Guiding Principles laid the groundwork for the GSA to design its government buildings “in an architectural style and form which is distinguished and which will reflect the dignity, enterprise, vigor, and stability of the American National Government.” The Guiding Principles notably are not binding, and do not mandate any specific architectural style. They instead suggest that “[m]ajor emphasis should be placed on the choice of designs that embody the finest contemporary American architectural thought,” and they encourage respect for local vernacular styles.
Though Trump’s executive order was overturned by President Joe Biden in January 2021, work continued on the Democracy in Design Act through the spring of 2021. Rep. Titus soon gained a cross-aisle co-signer, Rep. Mike Simpson (R-ID), and in September of the same year, the Democracy in Design Act was re-introduced, albeit to a new Congress, as a bipartisan bill that went further than the original 2020 edition by also protecting the GSA’s Design Excellence program with a new, more transparent rule-making process.
While there are other more pressing global and national concerns, April’s AIA Hill Day will represent a big push to gain momentum for the Democracy in Design Act. And if passed, the act will go a long way toward ensuring that if and when this administration begins to Build Back Better—as the campaign slogan goes—it will do so without style as a foregone conclusion.