The draft executive order, “Make Federal Buildings Beautiful Again,” released by the White House earlier this month, has caused a lively debate in the architectural community among modernists and classicists alike. The debate has brought many important issues to the forefront and allowed a national conversation about public architecture–a rare opportunity. For classical practitioners, this is an opportunity to argue for the ideas and principles we believe in.

On February 6th, the American Institute of Architects released their own response to the executive order. As a Fellow of the AIA, I shared my response to their letter with the organization earlier this week. The text of that letter is copied below.

February 17, 2020

Dear Ms. Frederick & Mr. Ivy,

The American Institute of Architects recently released its response to the President’s intention to issue an executive order instructing, “In the Capital region and for all Federal courthouses, the classical style shall be the preferred and default style…” There is now an outcry; opponents argue that architectural style should not be mandated. The loudest among those voices is the AIA.

Just to be clear, I am in agreement—even as a classicist. Neither the government nor a professional organization should dictate a single architectural style. However, I question—isn’t that exactly what the AIA has been doing for decades? As a Fellow, I wish to point out several falsehoods in the letter released on my behalf by the AIA on February 6, 2020:

1. The AIA “always works with communities to assess the most appropriate architecture within those communities. A one size-fits-all mandate simply ignores needed input from impacted parties.”

The AIA has consistently ignored the local history, culture, building traditions, and materials of our communities in favor of academically and technologically derived styles that have little to do with those communities existing urban fabrics. Technology and innovation alone have taken precedence over beauty and dignity in determining what is ‘good’ for the public.

In 2007, the AIA announced the 150 winners of the ‘America’s Favorite Architecture,” a nationwide survey of buildings voted on by the public. Nine of the top ten best buildings were classically designed, and five of those nine classical buildings were federal buildings in Washington, D.C.

When complete, the San Francisco Federal Building designed by Thom Mayne had an occupant approval rating of 13%, but the building won an AIA Excellence in Architecture Honor Award. Mayne has written: “Maybe art should adopt a more aggressive attitude towards the Public.” In 2013, Thom Mayne won the AIA Gold Medal.

Seventh place of “America’s Favorite Architecture” survey. Lincoln Memorial, Washington, D.C., Henry Bacon. (Tetra Images/Getty Images)

Fourth place of “America’s Favorite Architecture” survey. Thomas Jefferson Memorial, Washington, D.C., John Russell Pope, FAIA.

U.S. Courthouse for the District of Utah in Salt Lake City, Utah. After winning a 2015 American Institute of Architects (AIA) Institute Honor Award for Architecture, the popular reception of the courthouse was less favorable, with critics panning the building as “hideous,” like the “Central Bureaucracy building from Futurama,” “a gigantic air conditioner. compressor” and “something from 1950 Eastern Europe.” (

2. “The AIA has not, and does not, prioritize any type of architectural design over another.”

It would be interesting for Mr. Ivy, a noted author of the letter and vocal proponent of modernist architecture, to demonstrate how he has supported traditionally practicing members of the organization. Although the AIA’s mission statement notes “Diversity” as one of its pillars, this attitude in no way extends to architectural philosophies. The AIA and its press consistently and ardently promote modernist architecture and modernist architecture alone. There is a large contingent of internationally noted classical architects in the United States, but rarely has one been acknowledged, awarded, published in the organization’s journals, or given an opportunity to share their work or their ideas with the organization as a whole.

Second place of “America’s Favorite Architecture” survey. The White House, James Hoban (White House, Southside and gardens. Zach Rudisin. August 17, 2011)

3. “…the specific type of architecture preferred in the order can increase the cost of a project (to up to three times as much), [the AIA] would hope the GSA, Congress and others would take pause. Since these costs would have to be borne by U.S. taxpayers, this is not an inconsequential concern.

Beautiful, functional and lasting classical buildings are commonly and consistently built within the same budgets that are typical for modernist buildings. In fact, modernist buildings are often exorbitantly over budget. Whether a building is in the classical idiom has no bearing on its cost or the probability that it will be over budget. What is not mentioned anywhere in this letter is the fact that classical buildings are built out of tried and tested materials that have been proven to last generations. Modern buildings test technologies and innovations that are often quickly outpaced, outdated, and expensive to maintain—if not impossible due to obsolescence of assemblies and technologies.

The $100 million budgeted Wilkie Ferguson Federal Courthouse in Miami required an extra $69 million in immediate repairs thanks to water leaks, faulty equipment, and subcontractor lawsuits. The Wilkie Ferguson Federal Courthouse in Miami. (Jeff Greenberg/Getty Images)

For example;

• The classical Tuscaloosa Federal Courthouse, including technology and security, cost approximately $377/ sf. Resulting in a total of $47.8 million. In tandem with this minimal fee was the preexisting condition that it be a classically related building.

“There were certain public expectations that the building would have a clear and unequivocal relationship to classical architecture,” says Aric Lasher, AIA, director of design at HBRA.

• On the other hand, the modernist Austin Federal Courthouse is approximately $487/sf. the building cost tax payers $123 million. In 2016, the building’s architecture received an award from the Justice Facilities Review from the American Institute of Architects.

• Santiago Calatrava’s Oculus, built in lower Manhattan, cost nearly $4 billion. The original budget estimate was $2 billion.

• Thom Mayne’s Federal Building’s budget of $144 million was only reduced by a mere $11 million by eliminating the air conditioning in order to save his signature screen.

Austin Federal Courthouse, Texas. Completed in 2012. (

Santiago Calatrava’s Oculus — “The design itself has been compared to a series of giant Nike ‘tick’ logos, and the carcass of a Thanksgiving turkey.” (

San Francisco Federal Building, California resembling a picturesque prison yard. (U.S. General Services Administration San Francisco Federal Building” (PDF). Rocky Mountain Institute. Retrieved 15 August 2012.)

As a Fellow of the AIA, I have remained with the organization in order to work for unity and the diversity of practice among our members. It has been difficult. Because I practice traditional architecture my work has now been branded by my fellow AIA colleagues (all of them modernist practitioners) as racist, elitist, and even as fascist. These labels don’t come from the public, with whom my work has remained popular—I am well-published and have received numerous awards from organizations not related to the AIA. Nor, are they monikers that come from my political or personal beliefs. These are labels that come from my peers in the AIA that disparage the fact that I believe in the continuum of cultural history and the beautiful and meaningful architecture that has been and can be born from those beliefs.

It is true that both modernist and classical buildings can be good civic buildings. I believe classicist, modernist, and the public alike have one thing in common: we can all agree that egotism among architects, the lack of a common architectural language, the disregard for cultural histories, and disunity within the organization have created a mess out of the public realm. The solution should not be a mandate for the ‘classical’ or the ‘modern.’ It should be a mandate for the ‘good.’ That mandate should begin with the leadership at the American Institute of Architects.


Michael G. Imber, FAIA

Read here, AIA’s response to the draft Executive Order: