Trump’s architectural vision for Washington, D.C. looks like Ancient Rome

February 11, 2020, 5:15 PM UTC

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This space is dedicated to design’s relationship to business, but this week’s strangest design story involves government and politics.

According to Architectural Record, President Trump is considering an executive order to rewrite the Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture, mandating that “the classical architectural style shall be the preferred and default style” for all major federal buildings.

A draft of the order, obtained by the Record, extolls the architectural styles employed in “democratic Athens” and “republican Rome,” and cites the White House, the Supreme Court, and the Lincoln Memorial as “beautiful” examples of architecture. It deplores modernist approaches like Brutalism and Deconstructionism, and refers to the modern buildings housing the departments of Labor, Health, and Human Services and Housing and Urban Development as “undistinguished,” “uninspiring,” and “just plain ugly.”

The proposed “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again” order calls for enforcing classical design standards for federal buildings in and around D.C., as well as any federal courthouses and public buildings with construction costs over $50 million. The presidential commission it envisions would be granted sweeping powers that appear to challenge those of the Commission on Fine Arts, the independent federal agency that currently oversees the design of the nation’s capital. A second provision bars artists, architects, designers, engineers, and art critics from participating in public hearings about federal design projects.

In response, the American Institute of Architects says it “strongly opposes uniform style mandates for federal architecture.” Washington Post architecture critic Philip Kennicott called the proposal “the architectural equivalent of making every federal contractor use a hammer and nails exclusively; no other tools allowed.” An editorial in The New York Times asks, “What’s So Great About Fake Roman Temples?”

Technically, the order defines the classical style more broadly than columns. A footnote in the seven-page document approves of Renaissance architects Michelangelo and Palladio, as well as some Enlightenment-era and 19th-century architects. In what reads like an overture to the proprietor of Mar-a-Lago, the order also expresses tolerance for Gothic, Romanesque, Spanish colonial, and “other Mediterranean styles generally found in Florida and the American Southwest.”

The proposal asserts that America’s founders, some of whom were amateur architects themselves, consciously chose the styles of ancient Athens and Rome to reflect new nation’s democratic ideals. Traditional styles fell out of fashion in the 1950s. The order faults the Guiding Principles, drafted by Daniel Patrick Moynihan during the Kennedy administration, for opening the gates to modernism by eschewing an official federal style in favor of design that flows “from the architectural profession to the government, and not vice versa.”

So far the White House hasn’t commented on the proposal. Trump hasn’t demonstrated much appreciation for classical ideals in his own properties. On the other hand, he’s been famously critical of the Brutalist-influenced Federal Bureau of Investigation headquarters. And it’s not hard to imagine how he’ll feel about a proposal that presupposes the president knows more about architecture and design than architects and designers.

More design news below.

Clay Chandler


This edition of Business By Design was curated by Margaret Rhodes.

Brick by brick. A hospital was built in Wuhan, China, in 10 days, and a second one is already underway. In a hurried effort to contain the coronavirus, authorities are taking architectural cues from emergency hospitals that went up during the Ebola crisis. Features like negative air pressure, which controls the direction of ventilation, and wings for “cohorting,” which separates patients by level of contagiousness, are designed to curb the virus’s spread. [CNN]

Breakfast salads. Renowned for its free workplace lunches, Google is now getting credit for its experiments in choice engineering when it comes to meals. By redesigning micro-kitchens, hiding sugary and sodium-rich snacks, and establishing a plant-based cooking curriculum, the tech giant has found ways to nudge many of its thousands of employees towards healthier diets. [OneZero]

Anthora Greek Coffee Cup
The iconic Anthora Greek foam coffee cup.
Giorgos Georgiou—NurPhoto via Getty Images

Foam forever. Foam bans, like the ones imposed by New York, Maine, and Maryland, prohibit the use of non-recyclable polystyrene foam containers. Dart Container, the family-run company that’s been making polystyrene foam cups (colloquially called Styrofoam, even though that’s trademarked and different) since the 1950s, is fighting to stay in business. It’s got a two-part plan: Challenge the conversation around single-use containers for now, and design more sustainable products for later. [The New York Times]

What users want. In good news for compulsive binge-viewers, Netflix has made autoplay previews an optional feature. The user-experience adjustment follows a tweet from one irked customer, and Netflix is earning praise for listening to its users. Given the intensity of the streaming wars (Disney Plus already reports more than 28 million subscribers), merging your customer support team with your design team sounds like a smart strategy. [Mashable]


ARM unveils two new A.I. computer chip designs by Jeremy Kahn

Apple hit with $27 million fine for slowing down French iPhones by Chris Morris

What Glossier’s grandiose plans for expansion mean for its brand identity by Polina Marinova

Uber still isn’t a business built to last by Adam Lashinsky and Aaron Pressman

The case for a national primary by Clifton Leaf


Inside the big, messy business of empathy from Fast Company

How Your Laptop Ruined Your Life from The Atlantic

Calm Technology is Staging a Comeback—Can Good Design Make it Stick? from AIGA Eye on Design

The New Analytics of Culture from Harvard Business Review


Why prioritizing user-first design matters in elections.

In one week, the Iowa caucus app debacle has evolved from a spectacular embarrassment of flawed coding into a full-blown conspiracy theory about an attempt to tamper with results. (Actually, there are several conspiracy theories.) At the center of those spiraling accusations is Acronym, the digital consultancy (helmed by a former Obama staffer) that created Shadow, the company that developed the caucus app.

Media outlets have looked at the app from every possible angle, asking, What went wrong? The New Yorker describes Acronym as a company with disconnected, Zuckerberg-ian ideas about technology’s ability to solve problems; The Atlantic speculates that the Iowa Democratic Party mistook well-connected strategists for experienced engineers. Both might be true, but Recode journalist Sara Morrison most deftly explains what went wrong by looking back in time to the 2016 Iowa caucus.

Four years ago, a company called InterKnowlogy partnered with Microsoft to build an app that precinct chairs would use to tally and report results. InterKnowlogy had one year to design the app, “the first three months of which were spent on product design, meeting with both parties, and doing usability studies to anticipate precinct chairs’ needs—down to the size of the digital buttons they’d have to tap,” Morrison writes. 

“The extra months InterKnowlogy had gave its engineers time to properly build and test the app. It also gave the product side time to properly prepare and train the precinct chairs who would be using it. [InterKnowlogy co-CEO Rodney] Guzman and his team took into account that chairs may not own or use smartphones and had little experience with apps, let alone any familiarity with necessary security measures like two-factor authentication.”

On caucus day, the app worked so smoothly that no one even talked about it. By contrast, Shadow reportedly had three months to develop this year’s app.

“The 2020 app’s main problem, according to the IDP, was a ‘coding issue’ that caused partial results to be reported to the IDP headquarters. But there were widespread reports that the precinct chairs weren’t adequately prepared or instructed on how to use the app, and that they found it difficult to impossible to download, install, and boot on their smartphones.”

An adherence to a fundamental set of design principles could have easily prevented this. Mantras like “know your user” headline the manifestos of just about any technology company, so it’s hard to see why Shadow wouldn’t know that its primary users would have trouble even downloading its app. A rushed timeline surely didn’t help, although it’s not clear why the IDP didn’t hire Shadow or another firm earlier than they did. (Again: Conspiracy theories abound.) But as elections get messier, and other startups advocate for complicated election tech such as blockchain-enabled voting systems, it’s critical that these systems get the thoughtful design they deserve.

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