A draft executive order from the White House outlining a rewrite of national guidelines for federal architecture cites downtown Austin’s U.S. courthouse facility as an example of a government building with “little aesthetic appeal.” Good heavens!
The draft order, titled “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again,” would hugely shape the design of future federal structures by demanding adherence to a “classical architectural style” over more modern designs — and Austin’s courthouse, along with the San Francisco Federal Building and Miami’s own federal courthouse, is among the three specific examples the order cites as failures to provide “visual testimony to the dignity, enterprise, vigor, and stability of the American government.”
The draft decries the quality of architecture under the General Service Administration’s (GSA) Design Excellence Program for its failure to re-integrate “our national values into Federal buildings” which too often have been “influenced by Brutalism and Deconstructivism.”
The courthouse, opened at the former site of downtown’s infamous Intel shell at 501 West Fifth Street in 2012, features design from Atlanta architects Mack Scogin Merrill Elam and local firm Page. It’s directly adjacent to the historic Republic Square park.
In 2016, the facility received an award from the Justice Facilities Review of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), and the jury had lots of superlatives on hand:
The jury found this project to be a finely crafted instrument, unapologetically modern, appropriately conveying the dignity of the institution. The connection to the heavily used public plaza is so important, and the building entry and lobby serve very effectively as extensions and enhancements to the public space. Clearly a mature expression, this reinterpretation of the judiciary manifests itself as grounded in its place, simultaneously exuberant yet modest, even restrained, spatially and functionally complex, subtle and consummately graceful in its detail, thorough and fittingly attentive throughout.
The well-proportioned, asymmetrical courtrooms seem to rest comfortably balanced between formality and wit. Much of the richness seems to be communicated directly through the well-choreographed palette of materials that expresses appropriateness and longevity through fine workmanship—an exemplary project in every aspect.
It would be hard to tell an architect you don’t like their building more succinctly than by arguing its very existence creates a precedent for prohibiting future designs of its nature on a federal level, but we don’t really think Austin’s courthouse deserves quite this much hate. The only complaints we’ve heard regarding its design relate to the security requirements of a federal building harming its accessibility at the pedestrian scale, and you can blame Timothy McVeigh for that, not postmodern architecture.
The AIA strongly opposes uniform style mandates for federal architecture. Architecture should be designed for the specific communities that it serves, reflecting our rich nation’s diverse places, thought, culture and climates. Architects are committed to honoring our past as well as reflecting our future progress, protecting the freedom of thought and expression that are essential to democracy.
Eric Rauser, the 2020 president of Austin’s AIA chapter, also provided a statement:
Advocating for or against any stated style of architecture both undermines and demonstrates a lack of understanding of architectural design. Buildings must be designed to respond to the natural and cultural context in which they reside. The U.S. Courthouse in Austin embodies the values of the current Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture as well as reflects the values of our city in many ways including its embrace of public space and regional materials. AIA Austin is gratified by the virtues embodied this building and the work of all our membership.