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 SCS is pleased to announce the appointment of Patrice Rankine and Sasha-Mae Eccleston as guest editors of a future issue of TAPA with the theme of race, racism, and Classics. A detailed call for papers will be issued in early 2020, and a timetable for submissions will be provided. This themed issue is likely to appear as TAPA 153:1 in spring 2023.

View full article. | Posted in Websites and Resources on Sun, 12/29/2019 - 7:32pm by Helen Cullyer.

SCS is pleased to be able to offer professional learning units (PLUs) to K-12 teachers in the District of Columbia who attend the AIA-SCS Annual Meeting from January 2-5 at the Marriott Marquis, Washington DC. Forms for PLUs will be available at the SCS booth in the exhibit hall.

View full article. | Posted in SCS Announcements on Sun, 12/29/2019 - 7:12pm by Helen Cullyer.

It might seem that Plato and Xenophon have little in common with heavy metal bands; however, they do share an admiration for those warlords of Laconia: the Spartans. In a word, each expressed a degree of laconophilia. What drew ancient philosophers and heavy metal bands alike to Sparta may be a feeling of disenchantment with their respective mainstreams. Socrates’ pupils were no doubt disillusioned with Athenian democracy following his execution in 399 BCE, and the Spartan alternative arguably inspired in Plato’s Republic and Xenophon’s Constitution of the Spartans was a type of escapist fantasy.

View full article. | Posted in on Fri, 12/27/2019 - 5:55am by Jeremy J. Swist.

The SCS Board is delighted to announce a new prize, which will be awarded for the first time in 2020. The Gruen Prize honors Erich S. Gruen, Gladys Rehard Wood Professor of History and Classics Emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley.  It will be an essay prize for the best graduate student research on multiculturalism in the ancient Mediterranean, and submissions about any aspect of race, ethnicity, or cultural exchange will be considered. 

View full article. | Posted in Awards and Fellowships on Mon, 12/23/2019 - 9:53am by Helen Cullyer.

The 2020 Annual Meeting is less than two weeks away.  Registration numbers continue to be strong, but we are still lagging behind with the reservations at the Renaissance hotel.  We understand that some attendees will opt to stay with local friends or find a less-expensive accommodation, but we rely on hotel reservations to secure the meeting space each year.

View full article. | Posted in SCS Announcements on Sat, 12/21/2019 - 7:03am by Helen Cullyer.

In November of 1897, a review of an English poetry collection titled The Flower of  the Mind was published in literary journal The Academy. In his review of Alice Meynell’s anthology of the great English poems, publisher Grant Richards ruminated on the difficulties, worth, and effects of anthologies as a genre:

Anthologies, these latter years, come thick as Vallombrosa…For the making of an anthology is not merely the prettiest of literary amusements, it is also a delicate and fine mode of criticism. To select is to judge; tacitly, but no less deliberately. Admission or exclusion becomes the last word of a patient investigation, in the course of which, tests for genius are devised, and many an established reputation fails to sustain the ordeal. A history of anthologies would be a curious chronicle of the slow but inevitable determination of greatness.

The invention of literary anthologies, canonical readings, and sourcebooks goes back to antiquity and debates over their construction are perhaps just as archaic. Within the history of western education, the genre is a result of ancient and then medieval teachers and religious figures who privileged the teaching of texts from Homer, Virgil, or Augustine for generations.

View full article. | Posted in on Fri, 12/20/2019 - 8:12am by Sarah E. Bond.

Special tours for AIA / SCS: January 2, 2020, 3:00-5:00 pm
Woven Interiors: Furnishing Early Medieval Egypt and Cotsen Textile Traces Study Center
The George Washington University Museum and The Textile Museum
701 21st Street, NW, Washington, D.C.

Woven Interiors (closing on Jan. 5), co-organized by The Textile Museum and Dumbarton Oaks, presents 45 exceptional interior textiles from the villas, palaces, churches, mosques, and humble homes of late antique and early medieval Egypt (300–1000). Join us for curator-led tours of the exhibition and for a preview of The Cotsen Textile Traces Study Center. Tours will rotate throughout the 2 hour period, so we hope you can join us as your schedules permit. Museum/tour admission free with conference badge or proof of AIA/SCS membership.

The GWUM-TM is located just 1.4 miles from the Marriott Marquis. In addition to walking or taking a taxi/Uber, visitors can use the Metro: from the Mt. Vernon Sq. Station, take the Yellow/Green Metro toward Branch Ave./Huntington, exit at the third stop at L’Enfant Plaza; transfer to Blue/Orange/Silver toward Franconia/Springfield/Vienna/Wiehle-Reston, and exit at the sixth stop at Foggy Bottom-GWU stop; the Museum is just 0.4 miles walk, two blocks east and one block south between H and G Sts. on 21st St. NW. 

View full article. | Posted in SCS Announcements on Thu, 12/19/2019 - 12:06pm by Erik Shell.

Latin Lexicography Summer School: 20–24 July, 2020

          The Thesaurus Linguae Latinae Institute invites applications for its annual Latin Lexicography Summer School, which will take place in Munich from July 20 to 24, 2020. We welcome participation by researchers at any stage in their career whose work engages rigorously and critically with Latin vocabulary, whether in specific texts or across the entire corpus of ancient Latin. In addition to philology, relevant disciplines include intellectual history, epigraphy, linguistics, literary and textual criticism, medieval and Renaissance studies, philosophy, and theology. This year Prof. Wolfgang de Melo will be present as the scholar in residence.

View full article. | Posted in SCS Announcements on Wed, 12/18/2019 - 2:38pm by Erik Shell.

The Fourteenth International Conference of the Taiwan Association of Classical, Medieval and Renaissance Studies (TACMRS)

23-24 October 2020
National Taiwan University

Call for Papers

Food: Sacrificial, Spiritual, and Secular

Food, whether secular or spiritual, physical or metaphysical, human or nonhuman, has been an important issue throughout the history of this planet. Human history is a long story of appetitive contest with nature and the environment, while consumption is an empowering practice that involves struggle and sacrifice. The matter of food may illuminate or complicate histories of labor, leisure, science, production, ethical considerations, religious discourse and practices, and environmental concerns.

View full article. | Posted in Calls for Papers on Wed, 12/18/2019 - 8:55am by Erik Shell.

Eos: Africana Receptions of Ancient Greece and Rome is excited to invite you to a panel, reception, and showcase at the upcoming SCS Annual Meeting in Washington, DC on the subject of "Black Classicisms in the Visual Arts." We will gather at 5:30pm on Friday, January 3, at 

View full article. | Posted in SCS Announcements on Tue, 12/17/2019 - 12:11pm by Erik Shell.

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