The new federal courthouse, designed by local architecture firm Lake Flato, is under construction downtown. Credit: Courtesy / Lake Flato Architects

Some years ago, I noticed that a bottle of wonderful Irish whiskey, an annual Christmas gift from a good friend, remained about 80 percent full as of October. It made me realize I was paying insufficient attention. I was not noticing enough celebratory moments.

It is in that spirit that I raise my figurative glass to the fact that San Antonio’s new federal courthouse is well under construction. This is worth celebrating because if it was still on the drawing board, it might have to be radically redrawn.

Last week a trade magazine called Architectural Record broke the story that the Trump administration was developing a set of guidelines for the design of new federal buildings and even, where possible, the dressing up of current federal buildings.

The plan is laid out in a draft executive order with the catchy title, “Make Federal Buildings Beautiful Again.” It is sort of analogous to the constitutional theory of originalism. Let’s try to get into the minds of the Founding Fathers to guide our key legal and architectural decisions.

According to Architectural Record, “the draft order argues that the founding fathers embraced the classical models of ‘democratic Athens’ and ‘republican Rome’ for the capital’s early buildings because the style symbolized the new nation’s ‘self-governing ideals.’”

The style would be promoted and at least partly policed by a new entity, the President’s Committee for the Re-Beautification of Federal Architecture. As appointments he has already made to related government panels suggest, the current president likely would appoint people doing war with modern architecture. Or, as the headline for The New York Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman’s takedown put it, “MAGA War on Architectural Diversity Weaponizes Greek Columns.”

This is a very bad idea. The “self-governing ideals” of the United States are amplified by ideals of freedom, exploration, inventiveness, and creativity. The self-governing ideals don’t include subjecting our built environment to the whims of a crusty, musty Washington board that may well include persons appointed, like ambassadors, because of their generous campaign contributions. 

The United States is a vast nation of hugely divergent geography and local culture. Should Texans, whether in the marshes and pine forests of its east or the mountains and deserts of its west be restricted to structures of self-governance that require Corinthian columns and arches? Why not also require our state senators to wear togas?

The directive would replace a policy explained in a tight 500 words by the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan in 1962 when he worked in JFK’s U.S. Department of Labor before eventually becoming a senator. Two of its most important prescriptions were that design must “flow from the architectural profession to the government, and not vice versa,” and that “an official style must be avoided.”

Those are dictums that play to San Antonio’s strength. When it comes to architecture, I’d confidently rely on San Antonio over Washington for expertise. Our city is rich with architectural talent as demonstrated by the likes of Overland Partners, Alamo Architects, the venerable Ford, Powell & Carson, and many others. One of the city’s top firms, Lake Flato Architects, was the lead designer of San Antonio’s new federal courthouse, now under construction, with Muñoz & Company as a partner.

Full disclosure: About 25 years ago my wife and I hired Ted Flato to design a building for our place near Bandera. He came up with a single, large room with a limestone wall on the north with the other three walls made up entirely of screens. Its simple elegance was so striking that in 2000 it won the American Institute of Architects’ top design prize. At the awards ceremony, we found ourselves on the stage being honored alongside Grand Central Station for its renovations and two billion-dollar projects: the Getty Museum in Los Angeles and the City Centre in Kuala Lumpur, whose twin towers were then the tallest in the world. Lake Flato had won the award once before and won it again last year for its work at San Antonio’s Confluence Park. 

More recently, David Lake gave us a tour of the spectacular, bright, and airy new Austin Central Library, with floating staircases and bridges crossing open spaces to connect the six stories of wonderfully varied areas.

I love San Antonio’s Central Library designed by the late Ricardo Legorreta, but the Austin library is at another level. Librarians agree. It won a top award from the American Library Association and was named named one of the World’s Greatest Places by Time magazine. More importantly, Austinites love it. Lake, the lead designer, said the goal was to make it “the city’s living room.” It worked. The traffic is about 10 times what was projected. The building buzzes with the energy of more than 10,000 users on the typical Saturday or Sunday.

Were the library a federal building under the proposed rules it would be more like the classic designs of the main libraries in Chicago, Boston, and New York. They are very fine buildings with wonderful, majestic reading rooms inside, but the exteriors are imposing and not warmly welcoming. They look like they were designed to keep knowledge from escaping. 

Lake, who also took the lead in designing San Antonio’s new courthouse, said it is more formal than the Austin library, a confirmation of its purpose: the pursuit of justice through law. He said it is based on the evolving history of U.S. courthouses, but is also strongly tied to the city. One example is the use of local limestone.

“The sacked joint stone recalls early Spanish, Mexican, and German masonry found in historic downtown from the missions to the Governor’s Palace to houses on King William,” said Lake. “The courthouse design is regional modern and rooted to our past while looking to our future.”

Like the Austin library, which is LEED Platinum certified, the courthouse will be very sustainable, a quality that has been downgraded as a goal in the current administration, led by a president who calls climate change a hoax.

In sum, it will be a San Antonio building, with a design that is not imposed from afar without consideration for its local surroundings or the local culture and history. Far more than most U.S. cities, San Antonio’s culture is to preserve its historical buildings. But City regulations prohibit new homes built in the King William neighborhood from copying the styles of the late 19th-century homes that dominate. The new homes must not mimic their older neighbors, but must respect them. Architects are encouraged to salt the neighborhood with excellent, modern design.

That is part of what keeps it a living neighborhood, not a theme park or a museum. It’s not a bad ethic for government buildings as well.

Disclosure: Lake Flato Architects is a Rivard Report business member, and Katy Flato, the wife of Ted Flato, is a member of the Rivard Report’s board of directors. For a full list of supporters, click here.

Rick Casey

Rick Casey's career spans four decades of award-winning reporting on San Antonio. He previously worked as a metro columnist for the former San Antonio Light and, later, the San Antonio Express-News.