rchitecture in our nation’s capital is a mixed bag. Many of the Smithsonian Museums and other federal buildings are built in classical style. The National Archives, which houses permanent records created by the Congress, Supreme Court, and other agencies, is a good example.
The Eisenhower building, home to many offices of the executive branch of government, is a splendid example of the French Second Empire Style.
The Pension Building, now serving as the National Building Museum, is an attractive example of Renaissance Revival architecture.
My favorite building (and tour) in all the District of Columbia is the Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress, the interior of which could pass for a Romanesque cathedral.
Not all the buildings built here, however, are so distinguished. Many of the more recent Smithsonian buildings, for example, depart drastically from the general tenor of the National Mall.
Among the ugliest buildings in this fair city is the J. Edgar Hoover Building, headquarters of the FBI. A remarkable number of other agencies and departments (e.g., the Department of Education) inhabit equally ghastly spaces.
So far, I have only pointed out public buildings. The disparity, however, is also noticeable in private buildings. Take, for example, this magnificent home on Logan Square.
Now compare it to the scores of new projects that look more or less like these.
It has been reported that the White House is considering an executive order that would establish the classical architectural style as the “preferred and default style” for new and renovated federal buildings. This is an interesting proposal.
I am personally split on the matter. I agree wholeheartedly with the premise that public building projects have been on a poor architectural path for several decades, but I oppose a solution that would pretend that a single style of architecture should be preferred. Thus, while I strongly favor taking action to avoid monstrosities such as the Hoover building, I am not in favor of restricting future projects to the classical style alone. The Eisenhower Building, the Lincoln Memorial, and Union Station, for example, differ substantially from each other, yet each is beautiful. Our nation’s capital would be a poorer, less beautiful place without these dissimilar, yet equally handsome, buildings.
I am interested to see whether this executive order comes to fruition. I am also interested to learn that the President has recently appointed James C. McCrery II, AIA and Duncan G. Stroik, AIA as members of the federal Fine Arts Commission. Both are experts in their field and involved in firms at the forefront of renewal in Catholic church architecture.
Whether this particular executive order comes to pass or not, the matter of public architecture deserves attention. As the recently deceased Sir Roger Scruton argued so passionately, starving ourselves of beauty is not a path forward.