“The development of an official style must be avoided. Design must flow from the architectural profession to the Government, and not vice versa.”

The words are those of Daniel Patrick Moynihan. They’re part of his famous "Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture" (1962), which helped inspire a revolution in government architecture. The revolution was the Design Excellence program in the General Services Administration (GSA—sorry, it’s hard to write about government without bogging in multisyllables). From 1994 to 2005, under the GSA’s chief architect, Ed Feiner, the program tried to choose the best architects in the country for the design of courthouses and other federal buildings.

Thom Mayne’s courthouse in Eugene, Oregon, came through the Design Excellence Program.
Photography: © Tim Griffith

Full disclosure: I’ve been a so-called “peer adviser” to the Design Excellence program since its inception, one of dozens of people around the country who are occasionally asked to help the GSA select an architect or to review an evolving design.

But getting back to Moynihan’s dictum: I once heard Feiner phrase it another way. “We don’t decide what is good design,” he said. “We ask the architects to tell us.”

But that begs an obvious question. Which architects do you ask? It’s a conundrum. By asking some architects and not asking others, is the GSA deciding, de facto, what good design is?

That conundrum was the heart of a national conference in Washington, D.C., in June. Entitled “Function, Form and Meaning in Federal Courthouses,” it was held, ironically, in the pompous, disorienting interior wasteland that is the Ronald Reagan Building (not a product of the Design Excellence program).

The conference was supposed to look back over the 13 years of Design Excellence, using courthouses as a building type case study, and figure out what worked and what didn’t.

Disclosure again: I was the keynote speaker at this conference. I’m not about to repeat my remarks (I tried to argue every side of every issue, just to throw everything on the table). Instead, I’d like to address the real question about this conference: Why was it held?

A hidden cabal?
It was held, I think, in an effort to clear the air of a persistent rumor. Many people suspect there is a hidden cabal that’s been trying to bully the GSA into abandoning contemporary architecture in favor of “traditional” or “Classical” buildings, perhaps fully decked out with theatrical domes, pediments, and Grecian colonnades.

Rumors like that get around for a reason. To understand them, you have to go back to a series of events that began with the resignation of chief architect Feiner more than two years ago.

Before Feiner, before Design Excellence, the best architects seldom applied for GSA work. It was assumed the GSA wasn’t interested in architectural innovation or excellence. Since World War II, most government buildings had been bland, generic, unimaginative. All buildings are billboards for the values that created them, and these shouted “bureaucracy.” That bad period, it’s worth noting, was an exception in American architectural history. From the one-room brick courthouses of Colonial days through the so-called WPA Style of the 1930s, with its masterful Art-Deco and Stripped Classical post offices, American government buildings before World War II were usually a source of architectural pride.

For almost two years after Feiner resigned, the government failed to appoint a new chief architect. It was widely assumed that the GSA was deliberately letting Design Excellence die. But why? Was there pressure from conservative judges? From some senator or committee? From old-line architecture firms? From the White House? Nobody claimed to know.

Then, at last, came the news that Thomas Gordon Smith, a professor at Notre Dame, would be the new chief architect. Whether Smith was actually appointed (as I believe he was), or whether the announcement was merely a Washington trial balloon, there was flak from the architectural community. Soon it was announced that, no, Smith would be merely a consultant to the program. The new chief architect would be Les Shepherd, a Modernist who had long served as Ed Feiner’s second-in-command.

Thomas Gordon Smith would have been an astonishing choice as chief architect. He came to Notre Dame as chairman of architecture in 1989, where he created the only major school in this country that teaches traditional Classical architecture. Presumably, he would have led the GSA toward that same goal.

Anyone who, like me, writes about architecture for the general public knows that most people love traditional architecture and prefer it to contemporary. Everyone in my home city of Boston seems to know that in a 1976 Bicentennial poll of architects and historians, the Modernist Boston City Hall was named the seventh-greatest work of architecture in American history. Boston City Hall is so widely disliked (except by us architects) that the current mayor wants to tear it down and start over.