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US Government Architecture Should Not Aim to be Fine Art

— Richard Stallman

A month before the end of his term, President Trump did something that, as far as I can tell, was sincere rather than manipulative: he ordered that government buildings be designed with an eye to tradition, avoiding artistic experimentation such as modernism.

I've seen artistic buildings that I found pleasingly whimsical — for instance, the MIT Stata Center, and the Aronoff Center at the University of Cincinnati — but I agree with him on this policy question.

Building an artistic design means taking a risk that people won't like it. What's more, architects with the artistic mindset feel compelled to search for ways to make the design unusual. (Without noticeable differences, it won't present itself as art.) Strangeness for the sake of strangeness means risk for the sake of risk. Also, it is an impediment to designing for whatever other purpose there might be. Even if the design succeeds esthetically, some of the strange elements will turn out unpleasant or inconvenient in actual use (as happened in the Stata Center).

Why should the government take that risk? Exposing the public to the architecture that is artistic, even challenging, should not outweigh making public buildings that the public will feel comfortable with. Why not leave the stylistic experimentation to private developers?

By the way, "Brutalism" in architecture does not refer to brutality. It is a French word, derived from "brut" which means "rough" or "crude", and was coined to name a style that intentionally hints at unfinishedness — for instance, by not covering up the pipes.

Unfortunately, Brutalism often includes expanses of rough concrete. and these can have an effect resembling brutality. Many train stations in Spain are Brutalist and minimalist, and being in them is unpleasant, like being in a space designed for giants where humans do not belong. Someone I met in Zaragoza called that city's station "pharaonic."

Copyright (c) 2012 Richard Stallman
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