Arts & Culture

Best building styles reflect history

It seems everyone has an opinion on public art or architecture. We have preferences for what we think is attractive, interesting and worthwhile. Upon what do we base these preferences? It’s likely we’re basing them on first reaction, which is hardly a reliable or informed measure.

Just as directors are hired for the tone, visual style and techniques they bring to productions so are designers and architects trusted to apply technical and creative skills to meet the needs of the clients and public. They are the experts in their fields and should have creative control. The client can mandate project parameters such as cost or time frame.

When I saw a perspective piece published Feb. 6 in the Washington Post, “Why Trump shouldn’t be allowed to dictate how federal buildings are designed” (, I found myself shaking my head.

The group at the center of the story, the National Civic Art Society, is proposing an executive order that mandates new federal buildings be of “classical architectural style.” The group wants more buildings like the Jefferson Memorial and fewer like the memorials to Martin Luther King Jr. and Franklin Roosevelt.

The group is led by Justin Shubow, whose biography on the website mentions nothing about any architectural or design education. Yet Shubow has written architectural criticism and testified against the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial, designed by Frank Gehry.

The group deems anything less than classical architecture as a failure. It claims beauty cannot be found outside this style.

One architectural style is not right for all homes. It follows then that one architectural style is not suitable for all Washington, D.C., federal buildings.

I don’t believe the memorials should be limited to one architectural style and neither did past government officials. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, before he was a senator, created the Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture. Still in use today, the second policy point advises against adopting one architectural style. It says, “design must flow from the architectural profession to the government and not vice versa.”

Federal buildings are for the people and should not be designed to please one group. The buildings need to welcome all and not intimidate people from accessing them.

The buildings should reflect the era in history and most importantly tell a story. The National Museum of African American History and Culture distinguishes itself among other museums. The bronze-colored metal lattice wraparound exterior symbolizes ironwork made by slaves in the south. The lacelike lattice allows light into the museum, signifying the start of an open conversation about race.

Cities hold design competitions to generate new ideas. They want architects to explore possibilities and propose engaging designs. Buildings are products of their times and will be influenced by the latest materials and construction methods.

The Cedar Rapids U.S. Courthouse is a great example of what federal buildings can look like beyond the columns and friezes. The glass front exterior creates a transparency not often associated with government buildings. The glass also allows the public to see the 41-foot-high sculpture suspended in the atrium.

A city is an evolving work of design. There will be 100-year-old Victorian homes near modern apartments and Craftsman-style homes near industrial buildings. It is this mix, this diversity, that makes cities fun to explore. They tell where the city has been, where it is and what’s ahead.

I want to live in a country that is forward-thinking and not solely reliant on ideas of the past. Cities should represent evolving technology, construction and design. May the best ideas win.

Erin Owen graduated from the interior design program at Kirkwood Community College. She has worked as a commercial and residential interior designer.


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