Have you experienced dread and depression when walking into a government building? It’s probably not just because of the bureaucratic hurdles inevitably awaiting. It’s probably also due to the imposing, inhuman nature of the building itself.
There’s a good reason for that feeling. If it was built after 1962, a government building likely conforms to Modernist or Postmodernist architecture styles.
Perhaps the best example of the sense of oppression and bleakness in government structures is the J. Edgar Hoover Building, the headquarters of the FBI in Washington, D.C. The horrible monolith features exposed concrete and rigid 90-degree angles. The building’s ugly concrete exterior is literally crumbling away, threatening to fall on innocent citizens walking below on Pennsylvania Avenue.
Americans deserve better. People are happier and more productive when they live and work in attractive buildings. A major study completed in 2020 by The Harris Poll found that Americans prefer traditional buildings to modern and postmodern ones at a rate of 72% to 28%. These numbers did not vary significantly according to political opinion, race, ethnicity, gender, age, income level, or geographical region.
How did we get to the point where nearly all government buildings feature the modernist or postmodernist architectural forms regular people hate? How is it that of 78 federal buildings in the so-called Design Excellence program since 1994 only six were constructed according to classical/traditional style?
The problem lies in the elitism of architects. Architects design buildings for other architects. Like avant-garde sculpture or music, the creator doesn’t care if regular folks like it or not. In fact, it might be embarrassing for such “artists” if the average person enjoyed their works because their peers might think them too unsophisticated.
A new bill, called the “Beautifying Federal Civil Architecture Act” proposed in June by Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Indiana Rep. Jim Banks, has risen against this perverse instinct against the happiness of the people in the majority of architects. If passed, the bill would make classical styles “preferred” for new federal buildings. Under the law, federal buildings would more likely conform to Neoclassical, Georgian, Federal, Greek Revival, Beaux-Arts, or Art Deco styles, all of which fit under the “classical” umbrella.
The American Institute of Architects represents the collective mind of the architectural guild in the U.S. They strongly oppose the bill and have sponsored counter legislation. If you read AIA’s response to the bill, they want you to think it would destroy diversity in architecture and cause different regions in the U.S. to get stuck with buildings that don’t suit the locale.
However, the “classical styles” referred to in the bill are not all the same. It’s not that neoclassical buildings like the Capitol or White House will be plunked down in Southern California. Under the new legislation, we’d be more likely to wind up with federal buildings done in the Spanish Revival style. Think the Santa Barbara Courthouse or Pasadena City Hall.
Watch out for the AIA’s intention to pull the wool over our eyes. They want freedom to pursue their selfish “artistic” vision rather than care for us who have to see and enter these buildings every day. They do lip service to “democracy,” but don’t care that normal folks despise the kind of buildings they design.
In Santa Clarita, we should contact our Rep. Mike Garcia and Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Alex Padilla, and urge them to support this bill. It should not be a partisan issue, even though it seems to fall along the lines of Republicans for classical architecture and Democrats for brutalist and other modern styles. Again, when polled, Republicans and Democrats equally value traditional architecture over modern.
Additionally, I urge the citizens of Santa Clarita, the Santa Clarita City Council, the county supervisors, and other public officials with influence to support traditional architecture in local civic buildings. We should not be saddled with inhuman, ugly buildings like our current courthouse. When the new courthouse begins to be designed, we should hire an architect who will listen to the people and has the skills to design a beautiful building that makes us all feel more human. We should build a courthouse that acknowledges our heritage as Southern Californians.
We could have a landmark, defining building like the Santa Clara Courthouse or a monstrosity like the Buffalo City Court Building.
Which kind of building would you prefer to walk into when you have to go to court?
Andrew M. Selby