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Trump’s Neoclassicism and Macron’s Timber Towers: What Role Should Government Play in Architecture?

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Earlier this month, an eight-page draft executive order titled, “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again,” was released. In it, the Trump administration decrees that neoclassical architecture be the “preferred and default” style of all new and upgraded federal buildings. 

A draft executive order by the Trump administration may rewrite the GSA’s Guiding Principals of Federal Architecture in favor of neoclassical design; image via Shealah Craighead/White House Flickr

According to The Architect’s Newspaper, this move would force the General Service Administration (GSA) to rewrite the Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture, a three-point policy document written in 1962 by former New York senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Moynihan’s principles condemned the instatement of an official federal architectural style. “Design must flow from the architectural profession to the Government, and not vice versa,” it stated. To Moynihan, a collaborative relationship between these entities, rather than a state-mandated one, was a key part of upholding democracy. 

However, it’s apparent that Trump seeks to disregard and abandon this notion. The administration believes that for decades the federal government has “largely stopped building beautiful buildings that the American people want to look at or work in.” The executive draft order particularly assaults Brutalism, Deconstructivism and their derivatives, which are excluded entirely. 

The J. Edgar Hoover Building, a Brutalist behemoth in Washington D.C.; image via FBI

According to The Architect’s Newspaper, “Other non-traditional buildings would be permitted to move forward only with approval from the president, who must first be provided with a detailed explanation of “whether such design is as beautiful… as alternative designs of comparable cost in a traditional architectural style.” Conversely, the administration praises the design of structures, such as the U.S. Capitol Building, the White House and the Supreme Court Building. And the document goes on to claim that buildings designed under Trump’s order would “convey the dignity, enterprise, vigor and stability of America’s system of self-government.”  

This level of control over the state’s architectural style takes a very authoritarian tone. Trump’s draft executive order raises a broader point relating to government-imposed design standards. According to The Times, French President Emmanuel Macron is aiming for all new public buildings to be built with at least 50 percent wood or another bio-sourced material by 2022. Macron also seeks to create 100 urban farms across the country in an effort to boost France’s large-scale sustainability measures. 

Though this move by the French government isn’t centered on architectural aesthetics like that of the Trump administration, some may argue it is another demonstration of governmental overreach, and is problematic on a number of levels. A mandate requiring the use of a particular material remains very acute and controlled, and it inevitably yields a particular aesthetic, just as Trump’s executive order threatens to do. The proposed percentage of construction required to be timber also appears arbitrary. Why no less than 50%? Why not more? In the absence of a scientific rationale for the figure, the answer is not clear.

Hyperion is set to be France’s first residential tower built from mass timber; image courtesy Jean-Paul Viguier et Associés

When pushing for more sustainable architecture, a more nuanced approach is surely to harness regulations requiring buildings to be built to measurable standards — LEED certification, for example, is designed to be applied globally. Stipulating minimum requirements for areas such as carbon footprint, energy efficiency, light levels and ventilation provides architects with a universal framework, while leaving room for experimentation and innovation. But, at least the French government is striving for improved performance and sustainability, while the U.S. is preoccupied with aesthetics.

While both Trump and Macron’s ambitions to steer the design of governmental buildings are sure to divide opinion, one thing is certain — they will have architects around the world debating the issue intensely in the months to come. Do you think the governments of the US and France are going too far with their aims? What is an acceptable role for governments to play in the realm of public architecture? Let us know your thoughts by emailing

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