The Feiner Things *
Thanks to architect Edward A. Feiner, the federal government is building future landmarks again
Laura Fisher Kaiser -- Interior Design, 10/1/2003 12:00:00 AM
When you get off the elevator on the third floor of the U.S. General Services Administration building, a 1917 edifice in Washington, D.C., you have a choice. Turn right, down a corridor that's long, dim, and grim. Or go left, and breeze into the light of chief architect Edward A. Feiner's offices by Lehman-Smith + McLeish. It's safe to say that Feiner is the only Washington bureaucrat who sits on white Barcelona chairs, wears blue cowboy boots, and switches effortlessly from the intricacies of government procurement to the philosophy of contemporary architecture.
He also oversees $10.5 billion worth of design and construction for the GSA's 350 million square feet of real estate, from federal courthouses to border stations. By reducing the architect and engineer selection process to a simple portfolio review and interview, he's landed the best names in the industry, among them Carol Ross Barney, Henry N. Cobb, David M. Childs, James Ingo Freed, Joan Goody, Michael Graves, Charles Gwathmey, Thom Mayne, Richard Meier, Antoine Predock, and Robert A.M. Stern. Their buildings exemplify transparency, openness, and accessibility, confirming Feiner's belief in democracy through good design.
How did we get so many big, drab federal offices?
The huge increase in the federal workforce under Johnson and Nixon produced about 100 million square feet—mostly stand-alone office buildings of dubious distinction. They're the ones with the air-raid sirens on the top, and they weren't necessarily cheap, just misguided. Because the priority was to provide as much space as possible, quickly, the shape became a box with a floor plate so huge you need binoculars to see the windows from the core.
Who was calling the shots?
The GSA oversaw those functions, but there were very few architects in positions of, let's say, national design leadership.
And when you joined?
In 1981, we did a pilot program on incorporating advanced technologies. Fiber optics, raised floors, energy-management systems, all kinds of sexy stuff. As our final objective, we mentioned—for the first time—the word aesthetics.
How did you build support for good design?
First, we resurrected a design awards program that had lain dormant for 17 years. Then two things happened. We were asked to do a long-term strategic plan for the agency, and the judiciary told us they needed 192 federal courthouses to be built in five years for $7 billion. We finally had an opportunity to do some real work.
What happened with the first Design Excellence Program awards in 1990?
The jury loved Cass Gilbert but awarded nothing to recent projects. Two years later, it was the same, the dead architects' society. The program's director, Marilyn Farley, had to escort me out of the room—my body language said I was ready to murder someone. In 1993, we brought the whole jury back and sprinkled in David Childs, Hugh Hardy, Margaret McCurry, Joan Goody, and Gyo Obata. We locked the door and asked, "What are we doing right? What are we doing wrong? How can we do it better?"
What did they tell you?
It was very, very simple: Reform the selection process. Make it clear that the first consideration was the lead architect's portfolio, like in private practice.
How did things change?
Before, architects didn't know we were looking for anything better than non-innovative design done not particularly well by the C team in any firm we hired.
Our juries have consistently criticized our performance on interior design and landscape architecture, so we need to improve in those areas.
What were the interior design criticisms?
It was dreary. It looked too commercial—and not even good commercial.
You're recruiting your first interior designer with a national mandate.
We're looking for someone who has an interest in going beyond individual projects, who has a calling to make an impact nationwide, without an ego issue.
Is that a contradiction?
Oh, it is. But our architects are doing it, and federal judges are tough clients. You have to be able to prioritize.
You speak from experience?
When I was in private industry, working in government seemed like an opportunity to make a broader impact, even if I knew I wasn't going to become a multimillionaire with my name chiseled on the wall across the street at the AIA. The people here don't get their ya-yas being the lead designer of a particular building. It's about seeing the successful completion of work by a collaborative.
Have you had the impact you desired?
Not every building is an example of design excellence, but without the intervention 10 years ago we would never have a Richard Meier courthouse in Phoenix or a satellite-operations facility for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration by Morphosis. And the interiors are getting better.
Better isn't enough, though. We want to break the barrier.
Edward A. Feiner's General Services Administration office by Lehman-Smith + McLeish, demonstrating "what can be done with a pretty bad building," he says.
The GSA's chief architect in Washington, D.C.
A rendering of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Satellite Operations Center in Suitland, Maryland, designed by Morphosis with Einhorn Yaffee Prescott Architecture & Engineering.
The Lloyd D. George U.S. Courthouse, Las Vegas, by Cannon Design principal Mehrdad Yazdani.