In 1962, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then an assistant secretary at the Labor Department, prepared a memo on the use of federal office space for President John F. Kennedy. Into this document he tucked a succinct yet deeply considered set of recommendations for the design of U.S. government buildings. These “Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture” were adopted as official policy shortly thereafter and are seen as axiomatic by American architects and planners.
Moynihan wrote that federal buildings must testify to “the dignity, enterprise, vigor, and stability of the American government.” But he was silent about which styles would best express those qualities—deliberately so. “An official style must be avoided,” he cautioned. “Design must flow from the architectural profession to the government and not vice versa.”
That flow may soon be reversed. As first reported by Architectural Record and confirmed by The New York Times, the Trump administration is considering an executive order that will direct that U.S. government buildings with budgets greater than $50 million be designed in classical and other traditional styles. A draft document retains Moynihan’s ringing phrase about “dignity, enterprise, vigor, and stability,” but stipulates that “the classical architectural style shall be the preferred and default style.” All federal courthouses and federal buildings in and around Washington, D.C., would have to follow the work of Greek and Roman architects and their emulators in subsequent centuries. The late-20th-century Brutalist and Deconstructivist styles, meanwhile, would essentially be banned from the federal projects covered by the order. The restriction would apply to renovation and expansion projects as well as new buildings.