Back in February, a drafted executive order stirred up controversy for its plan around “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again.” The move would have broken from tradition to codify an official federal architectural style within the General Services Administration, a departure from nearly 60 years of policy precedent that even architectural classicists proved unwilling to embrace.

Ultimately, the draft order never came to fruition. But as new reporting from Bloomberg CityLab suggests, it seems that the unsigned executive order may have influenced at least one General Services Administration solicitation in 2020, creating potential issues of authority and oversight. Another solicitation, which predated the draft executive order, is also well worth considering. 

Based on language from that February 2019 solicitation for an $86 million federal courthouse project in Huntsville, Alabama, it would appear that GSA’s stated preference for neoclassical architecture predates the public revelation of the executive order itself by almost a year. It reads “GSA intends that the design of the new courthouse be neoclassical/greek[sic] revival in style, in keeping with other recent Federal courthouses in the State of Alabama.” The desire for a neoclassical or Greek revival courthouse is reiterated in the philosophy and design intent section of the evaluation criteria, which makes up 25% of the selection process.

This year, it appears that the GSA directly lifted text from the proposed executive order for use in an August solicitation for a $125 million federal courthouse project in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. It reads, “Classical architectural style shall be the preferred and default style absent special extenuating factors necessitating another style.” The solicitation’s desire for a project exhibiting classical style is further alluded to in the philosophy and design intent section of the evaluation criteria.

The apparent decision to unofficially adopt the unsigned executive order hasn’t gone unnoticed by Nevada congresswoman Dina Titus, the lead sponsor of the Democracy in Design Act, which seeks to formally override such a mandate. As chair of the Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings, and Emergency Management, which oversees the GSA’s activities, Titus has issued an inquiry into what went on with those two courthouse projects, according to CityLab. Titus further noted in a letter to GSA administrator Emily Murphy that it seems the organization is prescribing an official architecture policy “despite clear congressional intent on the subject” in the form of the 2021 House appropriations bill, which specifically forbade the GSA from adopting the executive order. 

Of course, with a new presidential administration comes the possibility of a sea change at the GSA. And while there are certainly many (more pressing) problems that President-elect Joe Biden will inherit, it seems that classical architecture is certain to be among them.

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