A building fury

Downtown Austin courthouse draws ugly criticism in new Trump executive order

Austin courthouse draws ugly criticism in new Trump executive order

Austin federal U.S. courthouse
The Trump administration is building a wall between modern and classic architecture. Photo courtesy of Page

A draft of a new Trump administration executive order dubbed “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again” is seeking to eliminate modern architecture from federal buildings.

The plan, first reported February 4 by Architectural Record, would mandate classical or traditional architectural styles for the majority of new federal buildings and renovations, a significant departure from design practices dating back to 1962. The New York Times calls the potential change a “MAGA war on architectural diversity.”

In its draft document outlining new rules for federal architecture — a proposal that eventually would require the Trump administration’s approval — the National Civic Art Society slams the federal courthouse in downtown Austin as exhibiting “little aesthetic appeal.” In return, architectural experts are slamming this ugly characterization of the building.

Ingrid Spencer, executive director of the Austin chapter of the American Institute of Architects and former managing editor of Architectural Record, says she “vehemently” disagrees with this aesthetic critique of the Austin courthouse. The building, next to Republic Square Park, stands on the site of what once was one of the city’s worst eyesores — the “Intel shell,” a partially finished structure that became a symbol of the dot-com bust in the early 2000s.

The courthouse, at 501 W. Fifth St., “is a wonderful example of sensitive and beautiful design, given the constraints of what a courthouse has to have in terms of security. It uses regional materials, and has beautiful and functional spaces within,” Spencer tells CultureMap.

Spencer says the courthouse will be prominently featured in a guide to Austin architecture that AIA Austin and the Austin Foundation for Architecture plan to launch later this year.

“I’ve toured the building with the architects, with judges who work there every day, and I can tell you they are very enthusiastic in their pride for the building,” Spencer says.

The National Civic Art Society doesn’t share that enthusiasm. The Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit says it “educates and empowers civic leaders in the promotion of public art and architecture worthy of our great Republic.” In short, the group promotes classical architecture and complains that “contemporary architecture is by and large a failure.” 

The 252,000-square-foot, eight-story Austin courthouse, which opened in 2012, doesn’t fit into the traditional or classical realm of architecture. Rather, the $123 million project conveys an understated sleek and modern feel. A limestone exterior accentuates the steel-and-concrete structure. 

In 2012, Austin radio station KUT noted that the courthouse’s modernist style represents “a departure from the stodgy, unimaginative architecture associated with government buildings.”

Four years later, in 2016, jurors for an AIA competition praised the Austin courthouse as a “finely crafted” project that’s “unapologetically modern.”

“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 jurors wrote.

Two years earlier, in 2014, the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) gave a design award to the Austin courthouse. GSA, which serves as the federal government’s landlord, said the building’s “cubic mass is meant to communicate the strength and dignity of the American judicial system.”

Atlanta-based Mack Scogin Merrill Elam Architects Inc. designed the courthouse. Representatives of the firm weren’t available for comment.

According to Phoenix architect Mark Ryan, who chaired the 2016 jury that lauded the Austin courthouse, the “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again” proposal would do a disservice to building design.

“Throughout history, cultures and societies have been judged or evaluated by the artifacts they produce. Architecture is one of those cultural artifacts,” Ryan tells CultureMap. “As such, it seems important that the structures we create, the buildings we leave behind, express something about the time and place in which we live.”

“Most historic preservation charters say something along the lines of copying the past does little more than devalue the past, that new work should be distinct from the previous work,” Ryan adds. “This would seem to be appropriate, whether adding on to an existing structure or building something new. The past has its values, its styles, its expressions — so, too, do the present and the future.”

In a statement provided to CultureMap, Austin architect Eric Rauser, president of AIA’s Austin chapter, argues that advocating for or against any style of architecture “demonstrates a lack of understanding of architectural design. Buildings must be designed to respond to the natural and cultural context in which they reside.”

As for the U.S. courthouse in Austin, Rauser says its modern design meshes well with the existing principles for federal architecture.

“AIA Austin is gratified by the virtues embodied in this building,” he says, “and the work of all our membership.”