A note of cautious optimism hovered about the group of design professionals convened by the General Services Administration in San Francisco last month. These newly designated GSA peers would face the heady task of helping to select—or to challenge, urge, or encourage—their fellow practitioners through the GSA Design Excellence Program.

They met in the shadow of the program’s progenitor, the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who had earlier penned a simple set of guiding principles for federal design and construction that included a remarkable assertion: “The advice of distinguished architects ought to, as a rule, be sought prior to the award of important design contracts.” As elaborated through the subsequent leadership in the General Services Administration—through former commissioners Robert Peck and Joseph Morevic, GSA Chief Architect Ed Feiner, Director of Design Excellence Marilyn Farley, and carried forward by today’s Commissioner of Public Buildings Thomas Winstead and Director of Design Excellence and the Arts Thomas Grooms—the Design Excellence Program has literally turned our expectations of mediocrity in federal design on its head.

As a result of the Design Excellence process, we now enjoy an array of distinguished public buildings that represent high ideals, particularly in the construction of federal courthouses from Boston to the Pacific Northwest. Thanks to a carefully considered evaluative process, the roster of noteworthy architects with significant completed federal projects who might never have submitted a proposal for government work in a more politicized climate now includes the likes of Richard Meier, Cesar Pelli, KPF, Pei Cobb Freed,

Perkins+Will, and Leers and Weinzapfel. Thom Mayne, FAIA, and his firm Morphosis have completed one major project (NOAA), with two more noteworthy and imaginative commissions soon to open (the GSA office building in San Francisco and the Eugene, Oregon, courthouse).

The nation would be poorer without them, thanks to the program and to the peers. Unlike most contemporary design and construction programs, which are based on pragmatic concerns, Design Excellence evolved from principles that comprise a value system. While acknowledging that pubic architecture should be “efficient and economical,” Moynihan stated that design be contemporary and regionally appropriate yet “reflect the dignity, enterprise, vigor, and stability of the American government.” We are not accustomed to such language today, yet the search for its implications seems to encourage a quest for quality in each project.

The peers must also grapple with issues facing each public building in the 21st century that broaden the original principles. Among them are the following: Iconography—defining who we are in a global world; Security—asking if, in a terrorist-threatened world, we simply move out of town and abandon the urban experiment; Transparency—government of and by the people, strongly advocated by Moynihan and others; Access—for all citizens, young and old, completely barrier free; Context/Siting and Urban Relationship—unique characteristics, from geography to an intended structure’s place within a community; Sustainability—determining if a building will serve as a beacon of contemporary energy usage; Historic Preservation, Productivity, and Comfort—for all inhabitants, visitors, and workers.

Although they will not design the future projects themselves, by serving on evaluative juries and ranking submissions, by suggesting participants, by helping to frame the arguments, the peers will help lead the federal government toward informed choices of the best architects for significant projects. Additionally, by meeting with the future occupants and community groups (whether they be judges, managers of federal programs, customs officers, or clerical workers), they can act as knowledgeable ambassadors, expanding public awareness and appreciation for architecture.

Moynihan articulated the role at the outset: “Design must flow from the architectural profession to the government, and not vice versa.” Ultimately, the Design Excellence peers, together with the GSA leadership that chooses and supports them, and the professionals that execute the work, will help define the public face of 21st-century American architecture. The program has become invaluable in elevating the role of architects and architecture in public life and deserves our vigilant and continued support.

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