News
02.03.2012
Editorial> Keeping Up the Good Fight
William Menking on the rise of Design Excellence in federal architecture.
Richard Meier's Federal Courthouse in Islip, Long Island.
Douglas Palmer / Flickr

An unofficial 1962 memo entitled Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture is perhaps the most important piece of public policy to include architecture since the 1902 McMillan Commission. The memo will celebrate its 50th anniversary on May 23 but few architects have ever heard of the document. It seems to have been the sole creation of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who at the time was an assistant secretary of labor under Arthur Goldberg. Goldberg was concerned about Washington D.C.'s growing federal bureaucracy and lack of adequate modern office and court room space (no major government building projects had been started in the capital since the 1930s), and he asked Moynihan to outline the problem and suggest some solutions. The result was something much more far reaching than the Secretary expected from the ambitious young New Yorker, and it may also explain why not much happened with it for thirty-plus years. In the 1960s as today, the General Services Administration handled all government building design and construction projects, but they also selected their architects. The results of this policy were that few buildings were built of any architectural merit (with some exceptions, like Mies van der Rohe’s 1964 design for Chicago's federal courthouse), and many were even considered eyesores in their communities.

Moynihan suggested that the government begin encouraging the country's best architects to submit designs and plans for federal projects. And in order to attract the best architects, he further suggested moving away from any notion of an official government style. As legal writer Daniel Brook pointed out in Legal Affairs journal (2005), Moynihan suggested that "It should be our object to meet the test of Pericles' evocation to the Athenians: ‘We do not imitate—for we are a model to others.’ Federal architecture, should embody the finest contemporary American architectural thought.” Fifteen years later, when Moynihan was elected senator from New York, he introduced a bill to require juried design competitions for federal projects, but the bill never made it out of committee.

The 1962 Moynihan memo did eventually lead to the creation in 1994 of the GSA’s Design Excellence program under its farsighted deputy director Ed Feiner. It was Feiner who, hoping to establish a proper selection process to ensure a higher quality of architecture, seized on Moynihan’s memo as the basis for the program. The program under Feiner and now Casey Jones has been responsible for drastically upgrading the quality of federal architecture and infrastructure projects all over the United States. This GSA policy has instituted juried competitions and peer review procedures that have produced an unprecedented number of important projects (at least since the time of Jefferson, Latrobe, H.H. Richardson and McKim, Mead and White). It is exactly the type of federal program that current groups like the Tea Party are itching to axe from the Federal budget.

Let’s hope this will not happen, but should the Tea Party and their Republican allies in Congress take political control in next year’s national elections, what they hope to delete from government includes banning HUD from spending money on the support of “ill-defined rubrics, such as ‘sustainability,’ ‘livability,’ ‘inclusivity,’ and ‘equity,’” according to an excellent policy paper President Barack Obama and The Forgotten Urban Agenda written by Greg Hascom in the environmental news and commentary website Grist. Under such circumstances, staying the course of good design will be even tougher than it was in Moynihan’s day, but just as essential, if not more so.

William Menking