Austin courthouse draws ugly criticism in new Trump executive order

A draft of a new regulation by the Trump administration entitled “Make Federal Buildings Beautiful Again” seeks to remove modern architecture from federal buildings.

The plan, first published by Architectural Record on February 4, would dictate classic or traditional architectural styles for most new federal buildings and renovations, a significant departure from 1962 design practices. The New York Times calls the possible change a ” MAGA war against architectural diversity. “

In their draft document setting out new rules for federal architecture – a proposal that would ultimately require approval from the Trump administration – the National Civic Art Society criticized the downtown Austin federal court as “unaesthetically attractive.” In return, architecture experts suggest this ugly characterization of the building.

Ingrid Spencer, executive director of the Austin chapter of the American Institute of Architects and former editor-in-chief of Architectural Record, says she “vehemently” disagrees with this aesthetic criticism of the Austin courthouse. The building next to Republic Square Park sits on the site of one of the city’s worst eyesores – the “Intel Shell,” a partially completed structure that became the 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 security constraints a courthouse must have. It uses regional materials and has beautiful and functional spaces, ”Spencer told CultureMap.

Spencer said the courthouse will feature prominently in a guide to Austin architecture that AIA Austin and the Austin Foundation for Architecture plan to open later this year.

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

The National Civic Art Society doesn’t share this enthusiasm. The Washington, DC-based non-profit organization says it “trains and empowers citizens in the advancement 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”.

Austin’s 252,000-square-foot, eight-story courthouse, which opened in 2012, doesn’t fit into the traditional or classic realm of architecture. Rather, the $ 123 million project has a low-key, sleek, and modern feel to it. A limestone exterior emphasizes the steel and concrete structure.

In 2012, Austin radio station KUT stated that the modernist style of the courthouse “represents a departure from the clumsy, uninspired architecture associated with government buildings.”

Four years later, in 2016, the judges of an AIA competition praised the Austin courthouse as a “finely crafted” project that is “unapologetically modern”.

“This reinterpretation of justice is clearly a mature expression and manifests itself as justified in its place, at the same time exuberant and yet modest, even reserved, spatially and functionally complex, subtle and completely graceful in detail, thorough and consistently attentive,” wrote the jurors.

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

Mack Scogin Merrill Elam Architects Inc. from Atlanta designed the courthouse. Company representatives were not available to comment.

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

“Throughout history, cultures and societies have been judged or valued based on the artifacts they produced. Architecture is one of those cultural artifacts, ”Ryan told CultureMap. “So it seems important that the structures we create, the buildings we leave behind, express something about the time and place where we live.”

“Most historic preservation records say that doing something like copying the past means little more than devaluing the past. New work should be different from previous work,” added Ryan. “This seems appropriate whether you’re adding to an existing structure or building something new. The past has its values, its styles, its expressions – so does the present and the future. “

In a statement to CultureMap, Austin architect Eric Rauser, president of the Austin chapter of AIA, argues that advocating or rejecting an architectural style “shows a lack of understanding of architectural design. Buildings need to be designed to respond to the natural and cultural context in which they are located. “

As for the US courthouse in Austin, Rauser says the modern design fits in well with the existing principles for federal architecture.

“AIA Austin is delighted with the virtues embodied in this building,” he says, “and the work of all of our members.”

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