Editor’s Desk: Democracy for Design

Architects Align With Legislation That Rebukes Federal Design Uniformity

Back in 2020, we wrote about the Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again campaign.  This nonprofit-led effort championed the use of classical tradition in architecture, specifically for public buildings and institutions, and was supported by the Trump administration.  As expected, architects and designers across the country decried the use of federal legislation that effectively limited artistic expression in the industry.  When President Biden took office, he overturned Trump’s Promoting Beautiful Federal Civic Architecture order in a move that the American Institute of Architects (AIA) said, “has restored communities with the freedom of design choice that is essential to designing federal buildings that best serve the public.”

         Now, in 2023, Congresswoman Dina Titus (D-NV) has introduced the Democracy in Design Act, which would prohibit any federally mandated design styles from being forced on communities and their buildings.  Since 1962, when President Kennedy endorsed the Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture, the General Services Administration has endeavored to inspire and shape the public landscape into a fusion of beauty and functionality.  The Democracy in Design Act would help to enshrine President Kennedy’s principles.

         According to the AIA, the Democracy in Design Act is important because it maintains a style-neutral position that respects the country’s regional and cultural differences, it encourages architectural innovation; and it supports community-centered decision-making that utilizes demonstrated architectural skill.  Representative Titus said, “The bill will ensure that design input for federal buildings flows from local communities and artists to the government, not the other way around.”  

         Sure, we all have a handful of self-described ugly buildings in our towns and state capitols.  While I’d personally rather see one style over another representing the architectural legacy of my state capitol, I’d much rather prefer the ability of architects to express themselves without being mandated to conform to one style.  In an era where America and its population is yearning to create a template for cultural cohesion, placing hegemony over the architectural style of federal buildings is not the right way to go.

         “What fits for Boise, Idaho, doesn’t always work for Washington, D.C., and vice versa,” expressed Representative Mike Simpson (R-ID).  “I don’t want any administration, republican or democrat, to be able to mandate certain architectural styles.  Let’s try to keep politics out of the design of our federal buildings.”

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