Obama's Building Boom: Will His Architecture Legacy Be as Lasting as FDR's?

Pundits and politicians are watching the president’s every move as the new Republican Congress takes power. But from courthouses to border entries, no one seems to be taking note of his diverse—and-oh-so-green—buildings program.

01.04.11 7:04 PM ET

When Barack Obama was elected president, it was as though someone had fired a starter pistol in the design world. All at once, packs of architects and critics surged out of the gate with articles and blog posts calling for the incoming administration to rebuild the American landscape. Many held out hopes that the much-ballyhooed stimulus bill would bring about a kind of nouveau Works Progress Administration, the New Deal building program that gave us the Hoover Dam and thousands of parks and civic buildings nationwide.

Just as it had for FDR, they argued, a mass infusion of federal infrastructure dollars could help equip the country for the future, while creating a wave of suitably contemporary monuments to herald our national renewal in the Age of Obama.

Well, the stimulus was passed into law more than 18 months ago, and what has it wrought thus far? Has this administration proved equal to the task of creating a new architecture for a new America? With the economy still on shaky ground, and the start of a new Republican Congress ready to oppose most anything Obama brings to the table, now would seem a good time to begin to take stock.

Perhaps the most immediately striking aspect of the Obama building boom to date is its diversity—across every spectrum, regional, professional, and aesthetic.

Mack Scogin and Merrill Elam are the designers of the new Austin Federal Courthouse, set for completion in 2012. And though their firm has an impressive portfolio of institutional work, this commission was its first federal project. It's a subdued, sober-minded composition in glass and concrete; a building that manages to convey the requisite degree of authority while keeping conventional rhetoric as muted as possible.

Compare that solution to another of the same building type: the new federal court in Bakersfield, California. There, the firm NBBJ has fashioned an homage to mid-century West Coast modernism. “We wanted to create a real connection to the California landscape,” says NBBJ Managing Partner Steve McConnell. Open for business in 2012, the Bakersfield courthouse is charged with a nostalgic, typically American optimism.

There is no signature “Obama style” and no signature Obama architects. But there is an Obama color: green.

Where the Austin building is nuanced and almost spectral, Bakersfield is all verve and gesture.

No signature “Obama style,” then, and no signature Obama architects. But there is an Obama color: green.

In Washington, D.C., architects Perkins and Will are at work on a new headquarters for the United States Coast Guard. The largest federal project since the construction of the Pentagon, it entails the total retooling of 51 historic buildings on site, with the installation atop those buildings of “green roofs”—lush patches of grass that will help reduce the compound’s carbon footprint as well as manage water runoff. Expected to merit the complex a coveted LEED Gold rating for sustainable design, the eight acres of landscaped rooftops are complimented by an array of less visible eco-fixes, like refrigerants with low ozone depletion and low-emitting sealants for mechanical equipment.     

Flagship projects like these, however, are really only the tip of the stimulus iceberg. Much of the construction funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is still in the pipeline, and it’s a little early yet to get a firm sense of what Obama's public works projects look like. “We've just finished obligating over $5 billion,” said Bob Peck, Commissioner of Public Buildings at the General Services Administration, but he stresses that “projects obligated this year” won’t be completed until 2015.

As the federal government’s de facto landlord and real estate developer-in-chief, Peck is responsible for the design and management of some 354 million square feet of government office space. He’s spent much of the last two years doling out stimulus funds for the construction of a brace of new government buildings and the renovation of many more—but the real work, he says, is still ahead: “We expect the height of construction to be underway next spring."

Slow as that might seem, one of the emerging hallmarks of stimulus architecture is actually the relative speed with which the buildings are getting built. In Jackman, Maine, a crisply functional Land Port of Entry on the Canadian border from architects Orcutts Associates went from concept to completion in less than two years. “Normally we might see a project like this take twice as long,” Peck says.

Having projects “under way and funded really quickly” is a major change from the last time Peck held the top post at GSA, during the Clinton years. Back then, red tape kept even crucial projects from getting fast-tracked. Today, the stimulus has substantially shortened the construction timeline, because its built-in disbursement schedule requires agencies to have their projects ready to roll by a series of funding deadlines.

This stepped-up schedule recalls the crash projects of the Roosevelt era—but the comparisons end there. The architecture of the WPA had a very distinct, and very consistent, aesthetic: austere Art Deco, bordering on the monolithic. By contrast, not only is there no preferred “look” for the architecture of this administration, but that absence of a coordinating style is the whole objective. “We agree that government buildings should reflect the quality and diversity of American architecture,” said Peck.

As a result, what distinguishes the new work isn't so much what you see, but what you don't. “The best way to reduce our carbon footprint is to reduce our actual footprint,” he said. New buildings are being built smaller, while old buildings are seeing individual offices reduced in size to accommodate more workers per square foot. And the majority of the GSA’s recent work hasn’t involved any new construction at all, but the green-retrofitting of older structures. From Seattle’s Federal Center South, to GSA’s own headquarters in D.C., behind-the-scenes changes to support systems like insulation and heating and cooling are making government buildings consume less, cost less, and do more.

Yet because so much of this is being done out of sight, it also seems a great deal of it may end up being out of mind. Unlike the telltale ‘30s detailing and Indiana limestone of the old WPA projects, there’s no sure marker for the infrastructure of the Obama years, save for the “ARRA” signs by the side of the road. Even those signs can be slightly misleading.

While the New Deal’s building programs were managed from the top down, the bulk of the stimulus' infrastructure spending has been doled out as grants and administered at the local level; having never landed on GSA’s plate, much of the final product lacks the direct imprimatur of the administration. Not only that, but so much of the recent work is really contiguous with what preceded it: its architectural quality—as with the diaphanous, wave-like Wyatt Federal Building in Portland, Oregon—is superb, but even that can largely be credited to the GSA’s Design Excellence program, an oversight panel created under President Clinton and left largely intact by President Bush.

Has the stimulus, then, proved a bit of a non-event architecturally? That may be largely a question of one’s expectations. If all those eager architecture lovers really thought Obama was going to buy them a new Tennessee Valley Authority, they were sadly mistaken. But the story doesn’t end there. In a very real sense, this is still the beginning, and already a definite pattern is discernible in the modus operandi behind the projects large and small built under this president. It’s a series of shared traits that might, if viewed from the right angle, constitute a distinct "Obama style" of its own: pragmatic, discreet, efficient, innovative, forthright, and in the end—whatever its limitations—quite remarkable. 

Ian Volner has contributed articles on architecture and urbanism to Bookforum and Leg Show among others, and is a regular nuisance to the Architectural Record. He has a BA in home invasion from Columbia University and an MA in flagrante delicto from the Institute of Fine Arts. His first book of poems, Home Taxidermy for Pleasure and Profit, is seeking a publisher.