Statement on Proposed Executive Order on Classical Design for Federal Buildings

The following was approved by the SCS board of directors on February 7, 2020.

The Society for Classical Studies joins the Society of Architectural Historians in opposing the proposed Executive Order “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again.”  As students and scholars of the ancient Greco-Roman world and its ongoing cultural impact, we recognize that classical antiquity provided some of the many traditions that have shaped this nation, and we appreciate the examples of neo-classical architecture, both public and private, to be found throughout the United States.  But we firmly believe that the architectural style of public buildings should not be dictated in advance, but rather freely and deliberately chosen in view of all relevant considerations, and we reject the supposition that a style derived from classical models is necessarily better suited than any other to express the history, values, and aspirations of the American people.

Please see the letter below from the Society of Architectural Historians and a number of other scholarly societies, including SCS.

February 10, 2020

The President
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W.
Washington, DC 20500

Re: Opposition to proposed Executive Order “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again”

Dear Mr. President,

The Society of Architectural Historians (SAH) expresses strong opposition to the proposed Executive Order “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again.”

SAH is the principal scholarly organization for architectural historians worldwide.  Its members represent a broad spectrum of academic and professional specialties, with membership spanning the globe.  Our membership strongly opposes the language in the proposed Executive Order “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again.”  We share the concern expressed by the American Institute of Architects, the American Society of Landscape Architects, and the academic associations listed below that have made common cause with us by signing this letter.

As an organization whose members have observed, recorded, and analyzed both historic and contemporary architecture since our inception in 1940, we have come to understand that most significant public architecture in the United States has resulted from the intersection of monumentality, permanence, and aesthetic significance and the specific local demands of site and community.  While we appreciate and encourage the attention paid to new federal courthouses, federal public buildings in the national Capitol region, and all federal buildings in the U.S. with budgets in excess of $50 million, we nonetheless remain convinced that the dictation of style – any style – is not the path to excellence in civic architecture. 

Democratic by Design:  Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture (1962), concluded, “Major emphasis should be placed on the choice of designs that embody the finest contemporary American architectural thought…Design must flow from the architectural professional to the Government, not vice versa.”   An important but often overlooked precept of Democratic by Design was the emphasis on “contemporary American architectural thought,” not necessarily contemporary design.  It encouraged both architectural practitioners and government officials to look for ways to express the ideals of American democracy in architectural form by looking to voices of the American public, rather than the amplification of a federal dictate from on high. 

The influence of Democratic by Design has been enduring and wide reaching.  This initiative has led to the design of several landmarks of American architecture, including the U.S. Tax Court Building in Washington, DC.  That courthouse was described by architecture critic Ada Louis Huxtable as “a progressive, sensitive contemporary solution fully responsive to Washington’s classical tradition and yet fully part of the mid-20th century—a period of exceptional vigor and beauty in the history of structure and design.”   A more recent example of this influence is the Oklahoma City Federal Building that replaced the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, destroyed by a domestic terrorist bombing in 1995.  In her Oklahoma City Journal Record piece describing the design of the Oklahoma City Federal Building, architect Carol Ross Barney’s statement echoed the enduring significance of Democratic by Design: “Obviously, the best thing to make it bomb-resistant was to make it hard, make it concrete.  But that’s the wrong message.  The message is that government has to be open.” 

A robust return to the principles of Democratic by Design would result in federal architecture that is monumental, permanent, and beautiful. This would be achieved by listening to the voices of the American public, placing emphasis on the communities in which these new buildings are to be located, and stressing the General Services Administration’s role in insuring that this diversity of voices is heard.  Instead of proscribing a particular stylistic outcome, such a path would instead promote architectural excellence, and a thoughtful fit between new federal architecture and the communities in which these buildings are to be constructed. 

While SAH opposes the language of proposed Executive Order “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again,” we strongly support a renewed effort to encourage the design and construction of federal buildings that embrace architectural excellence based on the best architectural thinking and technology available. America’s best can be embodied in an architectural expression that is monumental, permanent, community-centered, and beautiful.

Respectfully submitted,

Society of Architectural Historians

Middle East Studies Association

National Council on Public History

Organization of American Historians

Society for Classical Studies

(You can view the above letter on the SAH website at https://www.sah.org/about-sah/news/sah-news/news-detail/2020/02/06/society-of-architectural-historians-letter-in-opposition-to-proposed-executive-order-making-federal-buildings-beautiful-again)


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The phrase “Temenid dynasty” doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue. But this august lineage, which produced Philip II and Alexander the Great, was key to the development of the Western world. And in the Ashmolean’s dazzling display of archaeological finds the history of early Greece comes alive. Read more at The Telegraph.com…

View full article. | Posted in Classics in the News on Mon, 05/02/2011 - 3:28am by Information Architect.

A 2,000-year-old Roman ship in the middle of a plain near the ancient port of Rome has been unearthed by Italian archaeologists. Read more in Discovery News

View full article. | Posted in Classics in the News on Mon, 05/02/2011 - 3:25am by Information Architect.

The American Philological Association seeks to appoint an Editor for Monographs for a term of four years, to begin with the January 2012 meetings in Philadelphia.  We seek a senior scholar with editorial experience and an interest in shaping outstanding work for publication in a distinguished series.  The editor reviews proposals and manuscripts, works with authors to bring manuscripts to final form, and is the Association's contact with the publisher through the process.  While we continue our relationship with Oxford University Press, we particularly seek an editor willing to explore alternate and innovative forms of publication for appropriate scholarly works. Candidates should submit, and nominees will be invited to submit, a current c.v. and a brief statement outlining their interest. Applications and nominations may be submitted in confidence to the Vice President for Publications at provost@georgetown.edu. Consideration of candidates, who must be members of the APA in good standing, will begin on or after June 1, 2011. 

View full article. | Posted in SCS Announcements on Thu, 04/28/2011 - 7:14pm by .

The Winter 2011 APA Newsletter is now online. A printable pdf version is coming soon.

View full article. | Posted in SCS Announcements on Thu, 04/28/2011 - 1:54am by .

The Penn Libraries have received a major collection of 280 Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts, valued at over $20 million, from long-time benefactors and Library Board members Lawrence J. Schoenberg (C’53, WG’57, PAR’93) and Barbara Brizdle Schoenberg. To promote the use of this and other manuscript collections at Penn, the Libraries will create the Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies.

Full press release:
http://www.library.upenn.edu/docs/publications/SchoenbergMssCollection.pdf

View full article. | Posted in Classics in the News on Thu, 04/28/2011 - 1:47am by Information Architect.

"As a rule, digging beneath the surface of modern Rome turns up ancient buildings. Excavations conducted in 2007, just steps from the traffic hub of Piazza Venezia, revealed two Imperial era villas embellished with mosaics, polychrome wall veneers, fountains and frescoes. Dating back to the second and third centuries, these opulent dwellings were abandoned in late antiquity, filled with landfill, and unknowingly used as foundations for the 16th-century Palazzo Valentini, now seat of the Province of Rome’s offices." Read more in the New York Times…

View full article. | Posted in Classics in the News on Sun, 04/24/2011 - 1:41am by Information Architect.

"William F. Wyatt Jr., 78, professor emeritus and former chairman of the department of classics at Brown University, and a prolific contributor to the op-ed page of The Providence Journal, died March 25 in The Miriam Hospital, Providence." Read the full obituary at the Providence Journal Online…

View full article. | Posted in Classics in the News on Sun, 04/10/2011 - 9:58pm by Information Architect.

"THE 9/11 memorial in New York, still being planned, is to be dedicated on the 10th anniversary of the attack. Intended as a place for commemoration, reflection, education and solace, the memorial and museum will serve as a repository for the remains of the victims.

"Some families of the victims have criticized the planned memorial because they are offended by the prospect of sharing the resting place of their loved ones with museum-going strangers. Because the structure will be built seven stories below the spot where the twin towers once stood, visitors will have to venture underground to pay their respects, a prospect that also is not comforting.

"But one feature of the National September 11 Memorial and Museum seems above reproach: a quotation from Virgil’s “Aeneid” that will be inscribed on a wall in front of the victims’ remains."

Read more of Caroline Alexander's essay in The New York Times

View full article. | Posted in Classics in the News on Fri, 04/08/2011 - 7:14pm by Information Architect.

Put together by Pleiades, a collaborative project funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities that is mapping ancient sites around the Mediterranean and beyond, the link shows sites throughout Libya.

View full article. | Posted in Websites and Resources on Tue, 04/05/2011 - 1:24am by .

The American Philological Association (APA) will present the following awards at the Plenary Session of its upcoming 142nd Annual Meeting.   The Plenary Session will take place at 4:30 p.m. on Saturday, January 8, 2011, in the San Antonio Rivercenter Hotel.  Full citations for these award winners will no longer be read at the Session proper but will be published in mid-December and will also be available as handouts at the Session.

President’s Award (honoring an individual, group, or organization outside of the Classics profession that has made significant contributions to advancing public appreciation and awareness of Classical antiquity)

Garry Wills, Northwestern University (emeritus), for a distinguished career as one of the United States’ most prominent and respected intellectuals and as a voice for the importance of the classical tradition in Western culture.

Charles J. Goodwin Award of Merit (for an outstanding contribution to classical scholarship published by a member of the Association within the preceding three years)

John F. Miller, University of Virginia, Apollo, Augustus, and the Poets (Cambridge University Press)

View full article. | Posted in SCS Announcements on Mon, 12/06/2010 - 3:54pm by .

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