Not all the criticism has been supercharged. Many of the craftier critics assume a kind of eye-rolling world weariness: The debate between traditional and contemporary architecture is so … so … 1980s. I mean, Gawd. The NCAS and its supporters are living in the past, all right—not the Renaissance, but the Reagan era, when the neoclassical backlash against modernism seemed fresh. “Just to have this argument feels demeaning,” wrote the architecture critic for The New York Times. The order raises "issues most people simply don't argue about anymore," wrote The Washington Post's architecture critic. This debate, wrote a critic for New York magazine, “doesn’t really exist.”
Well, the debate looks pretty lively from here, if a bit one-sided. I think what the critics mean is that they thought this debate was over—and that the people who believe as they do had swept the field and sown it with salt so that no dissent could sprout again, ever. Then this little band of Trumpian pip-squeaks piped up with their draft order. The critics react to this brazen insolence much as the father in the Ring Lardner story responds to his talky, precocious child: “Shut up, he explained.”
Perhaps the frustration of the draft’s critics accounts for the misrepresentations and overstatements about what the order would actually do. The American Institute of Architects, in its statement, called it “one-size-fits-all”; The Dallas Morning News said, “The state [is] imposing its will on the creative freedom of its citizens.”
Anytime the government hires someone to do a job—even an architect—it imposes its will and limits his or her freedom. That’s one advantage to being an employer. Even so, the imposition in this case is limited. The draft reads: “Architectural styles—with special regard for the classical architectural style—that value beauty, respect regional architectural heritage, and command admiration by the public are the preferred styles for applicable Federal buildings.” Other styles, such as the Mediterranean, the Spanish colonial, the Romanesque, and the Gothic, are explicitly encouraged, with latitude left for other styles to be used under “extenuating” circumstances. Only two styles, brutalism and deconstructivism, are excluded for federal buildings.
That’s a pretty big tent. Would the AIA and the other critics want the government to hire architects that don’t value beauty, ignore local heritage, and give the public the high hat?
Come to think of it, that’s what the government has been doing for more than 70 years.
No one knows whether Trump will care enough to read the draft, much less sign it. From the evidence of his buildings, Trump’s taste in architecture runs toward a gaudy modernism, far removed from the restrained and tasteful traditionalism that the order promotes. If he signs it, he will do so for one of two reasons: (1) He truly believes it will elevate the quality of federal architecture and thereby the general level of citizenship. (2) He doesn’t care one way or the other but knows it will send his enemies right around the bend.
I’m betting on No. 2. And they don’t have far to go.