Too Good to Lose
Now what do we do? With the turn of a new year, Ed Feiner, boots and all, has left the General Services Administration. The fact that another public servant has left the world’s most prodigious bureaucracy and joined the private sector would not normally set off alarms. However, Feiner made a tremendous difference. As chief architect for the nation’s largest landlord, he oversaw the establishment of the Design Excellence Program, now in its 10th year, perhaps the most comprehensive and beneficial federal program for architecture since the New Deal.
What has Design Excellence accomplished? Its goals are lofty ones. The program represents a statement by government, backed up by investment, that design matters. At its core are principles articulated by the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who saw our buildings and public spaces as collective expressions of our democracy. Clarity and a contemporaneous statement of public nobility were its hallmarks.
As constituted by the GSA, the program evolved from a structural framework, including a network of professional peers, into a procurement process and support system, all resulting in better federal buildings. Peers help the government choose designers, drawn from a shortlist, then critique designs, helping clients and architects through the nerve-wracking process of commissioning a new building.
The results have been impressive. Would Long Island or Phoenix enjoy the stunning courthouses that Richard Meier designed without Design Excellence? Probably not. With a few exceptions, the list of other well-designed courthouses alone that have emerged from the program is long and the design quality high, from Portland’s iconic high-rise by Kohn Pedersen Fox to Boston’s glazed, bayside sweep by Pei Cobb Freed.
Design Excellence has taken risks, encouraging the development of the nation’s first (largely) unair-conditioned federal office building, designed by Thom Mayne of Morphosis, now under construction in San Francisco. Reaching outside the comfort zone, GSA has been tackling the thorniest of problems: what to do with the immense stock of ugly, thermally leaky 1950s and ’60s buildings crowding its inventory. The horizon for such improvements seems limitless. Sustainability, security, urban fit—all lie within the program’s expanding purview.
Part of the Design Excellence Program remains largely invisible. Professional peers can be called in to help on an ad hoc basis, as they were for the Orlando courthouse. When that project became contentious, landing on the cover of Architecture magazine, the GSA summoned peer reinforcement. The resulting dialogue between the local federal judges, the GSA, and the peer group may have helped get the proceedings back on course, if for no other reason than as an expression of concerned support. (In full disclosure, this editor/architect served as a peer in the proceedings.)
We mustn’t exaggerate. Ed Feiner didn’t run Design Excellence alone. Feiner enjoyed a professional partnership with Marilyn Farley, the program’s eventual director, who guarded the consistent quality of everything emerging from the office, including a superb series of publications. Regrettably, she too is retiring. Regional offices of the GSA carried out the day-to-day workings of individual projects.
Design Excellence has not died. Today, Joseph Moravec, the commissioner of public buildings for the GSA and a former developer of commercial real estate himself, calls Feiner his “mentor” as a public servant, particularly helpful to him in recognizing the meaning of design quality. Moravec has fully embraced Design Excellence and espouses its tenets, a stabilizing factor that allowed Feiner to leave, knowing that enlightened leadership remains at the helm.
Moravec cautions that Feiner’s departure “will not signal a retreat from the federal commitment to design in the public realm.” In fact, he has initiated a search for a leading figure to head the $10 billion in design and construction projects overseen by the Office of the Chief Architect. Much remains to accomplish. By Feiner’s reckoning, in addition to border stations, memorials, and laboratories, fewer than one third of a proposed total of 150 courthouses have been built. All are needed.
Institutional change provokes anxiety, not least when a strong, Bronx-inflected personality like Ed’s recedes from leadership of a program with so much potential for good. Ed Feiner, go and prosper: You earned it. Joe Moravec, we know you will make a judicious choice for a replacement. But architects, remain vigilant. Design Excellence is too good to lose.