Look at the commission today and you see some similarities. After Donald Trump made a flurry of hasty, last-minute appointments to the board which oversees the design of much of what is built in the capital, the CFA is once again all White and all male after decades of more diverse membership. And many of these men are partial to suit jackets and bow ties, a sartorial throwback to the imaginary age when America was “great,” when White men like French, Gilbert and Olmsted ran things without women or people of color being allowed to express an opinion.
If the two images resemble each other, however, it is mostly superficial. The fundamental difference is this: The original members, and the vast majority of those who followed them over the past 110 years, were giants in their field, while the Trump appointees that now run the CFA are minor figures, chosen not for their accomplishment, but for their ideological conformity to a rigid doctrine of architectural classicism.
Over the years, the CFA has been a workhorse group whose members serve without salary, dedicated to improving the design of everything from monuments and memorials to federal coins, medals, insignia and office buildings. It may have begun as a White guys club, but that changed over the years and the CFA evolved into a living pantheon of American design excellence. Those who have served include some of this country’s greatest African American architects, Harry Robinson and Phil Freelon among them, as well as giants of modernism and mid-century design, such as Gordon Bunshaft and Kevin Roche. Women have been essential to its work and success, too, among them Aline Saarinen, Chloethiel Woodard Smith and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk.
With only a few exceptions, the qualification for appointment to the CFA has been: You have won the top awards in your field and you can rise no higher in your chosen profession. Few if any of the Trump appointments come even close to that standard.
The Trump appointments to the CFA would effectively make the group useless and could lead to its demise. President Biden should move quickly to remove the current members, including the newly elected chairman of the commission, Justin Shubow, who isn’t a professional architect or designer, and recent appointments such as Steven W. Spandle, who designed the Trump tennis pavilion at the White House, and Perry Guillot, who gave a Trump makeover to the beloved White House Rose Garden. They should be replaced with a diverse body of professionals, including women and people of color, who bring a wide and spirited range of aesthetic viewpoints to the commission’s monthly meetings.
Fortunately, there are signs that the Biden administration is paying attention to things that might otherwise be seen as a low priority, given the crisis of the pandemic and its economic toll, and given the history of recent administrations, including Barack Obama’s, which neglected the several federal bodies that tend to arts and culture. On Feb. 3, Biden removed two Trump appointees to the National Capital Planning Commission, another design oversight and planning group, and the chair of the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation.
A clean sweep of the CFA wouldn’t just enable the administration to uphold its commitment to diversity within the federal government, it would save the administration major headaches, which are coming soon if the current commission remains in place. The last-minute Trump appointments weren’t just an egregious example of the administration embedding whiteness into the federal government. They were a last-minute backstop to defend one of the Trump administration’s more risible executive orders, the Dec. 21 order called “On Promoting Beautiful Federal Civic Architecture,” which would make classical architecture the effective default style for federal buildings in Washington and potentially around the country.
The Trump-appointed Bow Tie Boys, who bring very little substantial architectural or design experience to the table, were almost certainly put in place to defend that order, which could be extraordinarily costly to the American taxpayer.
Consider hypothetical federal construction projects and their fate if they aren’t graced with classical columns and bedazzled with pediments and acroteria. If the Bow Tie Boys send them back to the drawing boards, or require impractical or unfeasible changes, costs could rise and delays ensue. If the Biden administration is forced to step in at that point, all manner of insinuations would follow about motive. Better to do it now, before remaking the CFA becomes entangled with the politics of any particular federal building or monument.
Can the CFA members simply be removed? Nothing in the authorizing legislation explicitly prohibits that, though no one familiar with commission can remember it having happened in the past. But what is unprecedented isn’t illegal, and the circumstances are extraordinary. These are not paid positions — they are not federal judges — and much of what the commission does is advisory. An advisory board without the confidence of the administration it advises is useless.
The low professional standing and middling accomplishment of the Trump members also offers a substantial defense for removing them. The 1910 legislation that created the CFA called for, “seven well-qualified judges of the fine arts,” and for decades, through Republican and Democrat administrations, the definition of “well-qualified” has been set at an extraordinarily high level.
It is hard to argue that the current members rise anywhere close to the level of their predecessors.
If the Biden administration has any bandwidth available to think about these things as it wrestles with a raging pandemic, it might also consider this a unique opportunity, not just to undo the mischief of the Trump administration, but to expand the role and influence of the CFA. If you have ever sat through a CFA meeting — before Trump stacked it with ideologues — the experience was quietly thrilling. The members listen respectfully to architecture and design presentations, and then they go to work.
The discussion is often about details: If you added a course of brick here, this line would have more heft and substance. If you tweak the lighting on that path, you wouldn’t distract attention from the statue. If you rounded that curve just a little more you could pull the line of the fence away from traffic and noise . . .
It is painstaking work, often highly subjective, but when the panel is made up of professionals, it’s a wonder to watch.
The good the CFA does is in many ways invisible: it resists haphazard, careless, shoddy design. We never see the ugliness that was headed off before it got built.
We live at a moment when many people are trying to understand how ugliness becomes rooted and permanent in society. One essential lesson is that none of us can see all the ugliness from his or her own perspective, and many of us carry ugliness within us, unaware and unknowing, if no one confronts our assumptions. Only a diverse, robust, completely professional, highly respected, politely opinionated and innately collegial CFA can bring the range of perspective and expertise necessary to resist bad buildings, incompetent design, cheap renovation and cynical compromise in federal architecture.
So, find those people, impanel them, celebrate their work, and invite the public in to see one of the enduring success stories of the federal government — before the Bow Tie Boys run it into the ground.