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Thread: US Chief Architect retires

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    Default US Chief Architect retires

    Wall St. Journal
    2/9/05

    Property Report: Nation Seeks New Builder; As the GSA's Chief Architect Retires Amid Praise, Buzz Focuses on Possible Successors

    ARCHITECTS typically gossip about the latest hot builder or newest outrageous design. These days, the buzz of the architecture world is the retirement of a bureaucrat who has labored for the federal government for 30 years.

    Edward A. Feiner isn't just any bureaucrat -- nor is he just any architect. Until this week he was chief architect of the General Services Administration, the agency that builds and manages most of the federal government's real estate. As such, he is credited with returning good design to federal buildings and helping make the careers of some of the country's most distinguished and up-and-coming architects.

    Mr. Feiner, who is 58 years old, "transformed that position from flunky to phenomenon," says Henry Smith-Miller, of Smith-Miller + Hawkinson, a small New York firm that has won two government commissions. Indeed, dozens of cities and towns across the country have iconic buildings whose design was shepherded by Mr. Feiner, including the Moakley Courthouse in Boston, designed by Henry N. Cobb of Pei Cobb Freed; Richard Meier's federal courthouse in Islip, N.Y.; and Carol Ross Barney's rebuilt Oklahoma City Federal Building.

    The chatter among architects is who will replace Mr. Feiner and whether that person will be able to stand up to immense political and budgetary pressures to build cheap, mediocre buildings. The worst-case scenario is a return to the cookie-cutter buildings of the 1960s. Even the most pessimistic architects don't envision a return to the hulking rectangular boxes wrapped with repetitive punch-card windows epitomized by prominent federal office buildings in New York and Los Angeles.

    Mr. Feiner fears that the need to protect federal buildings against terrorist attack could undermine his longstanding battle to make government buildings more inviting and accessible to the public.

    In the short term the success of several major federal buildings hangs in the balance. These include a new courthouse for Los Angeles, a federal building in San Francisco and the Census Bureau's new headquarters in Suitland, Md., all of which are under construction.

    The GSA says it will look outside the federal bureaucracy for a new chief architect, something it rarely does for civil-service positions. "We're looking for a nationally prominent practicing architect," says F. Joseph Moravec, the commissioner of the GSA's Public Buildings Service. "Ed would jump right in with his X-Acto knife and start cutting. I want someone who if pressed could go into the backroom and design the building."

    The GSA is one of the nation's biggest builders, spending more than $1.25 billion a year on new construction and restoring older government buildings. That includes at least three major new courthouses, a dozen border stations and headquarters for two federal agencies in various stages of design and construction. Overall, the GSA owns 1,600 buildings. Its biggest clients are the courts and the Department of Homeland Security.

    Until the GSA hires a replacement, the office is being run by Leslie Shepherd, a Feiner protege. Architects familiar with the GSA expect the agency to consider people such as Robert A.M. Stern, a practicing architect and the dean of the Yale School of Architecture, and Richard N. Swett, an architect who once served in Congress. Through a spokesman, Mr. Stern said he hadn't been approached about the job. Mr. Swett said he, too, hadn't been approached but added that the job is a "position I could easily see myself involved in."

    With no succession plan in place, some worry the Office of the Chief Architect, which Mr. Feiner created, could wither the way great architecture practices such as those led by Cass Gilbert, Frank Lloyd Wright and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe did when singular founders left or died.

    "It's the only program left in the federal government concerned about design besides postage stamps," says Hugh Hardy, principal of H3 Hardy Collaboration Architecture in New York, who is designing a $90 million federal courthouse in Jackson, Miss. "We are all concerned that the emphasis on design excellence could disappear" without Mr. Feiner, says Mr. Hardy. "He's been able to dance around Congress, which isn't an easy matter, and dance around distinguished architecture professionals, and dance around the federal bureaucracy."

    A fast-talking New Yorker, known for his signature flat-top hair style and cowboy boots, Mr. Feiner launched the Design Excellence program in the early 1990s to draw top names in architecture to massive federal building projects. Over a decade, he oversaw at least $10 billion of cutting-edge courthouses, border stations and agency headquarters.

    Architects who in the past never did government work were brought in. New York's Richard Meier, most famous for the Getty Center in Los Angeles, signed on for two courthouses. Michael Graves & Associates, Pei Cobb Freed, and Skidmore Owings & Merrill also got commissions. Mr. Feiner also changed the architect selection process so that small, innovative firms won career-making commissions.

    Budget hawks accused the program of spending too much on aesthetics. GSA insists good design isn't a question of money. "Getting a better designer in effect saves you money because you don't have to do it over and over again," Mr. Feiner says. He adds that designs are made to fit what Congress appropriates, rather than the other way around.

    "Everyone is hoping he can be replaced with a person of similar intellect, energy and commitment," says Thom Mayne, founder of Morphosis, a Santa Monica, Calif. firm. Morphosis has three major federal projects despite a history of radical design ideas. Would he have gotten the work without Mr. Feiner? "No possible way," Mr. Mayne says. "It's completely up to his doing."

    Mr. Feiner is now a director at the Washington office of Skidmore Owings & Merrill. He wouldn't disclose his new salary. Architects in his position typically make roughly $230,000, according to a 2002 survey by the American Institute of Architects. The GSA chief architect position is in a pay scale that tops out around $150,000.

    Adding to the architectural agita occasioned by Mr. Feiner's departure is the fact that the ex-chief's lieutenant, Marilyn Farley, is following him out the door. Frederic Bell, executive director of the New York chapter of the American Institute of Architects, says the "so called suicide pact" makes the situation "that much worse."

    The GSA, Mr. Feiner and the projects themselves have received numerous awards. But the ex-chief architect has his own measure of success: whether buildings appear on the covers of local phone books and are made into postcards. "It's nice when the community is proud of their government buildings rather than that they look the other way and are grossed out," he says.

  2. #2

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    This is my recommendation for his replacement: William A. McDonough, FAIA

  3. #3

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    Feiner on Sustainability

    GSA’s Chief Architect talks about the relationship between sustainability and toilet paper and unveils his secret for determining whether a Federal building is any good.

    By Robert Cassidy, Editor-in-Chief
    Reprinted courtesy of Building Design & Construction, 11/01/2004.


    ------------------------------------------------------------------------


    As Chief Architect of the U.S. General Services Administration, Edward A. Feiner, FAIA, oversees an inventory of more than 350 million sf of Federal space for courthouses, office buildings, national laboratories, border stations, computer centers, and special-use projects. The GSA pipeline currently has over $10.5 billion in design and construction.

    Feiner is passionate about the role of civic architecture in elevating the quality of life in America’s cities and towns. While he does not look the part of a bureaucrat — his trademark cowboy boots are out of fashion in the Federal Triangle, except perhaps among the Idaho delegation to Congress — he is a cagey gamesman who knows how to use his Bronx street smarts to win support for GSA projects.

    Recently, we talked with Feiner about the GSA, Federal buildings, and sustainable design. Here are excerpts from that conversation.

    On sustainability: “We view sustainability as an integral part of the process. It’s not a feature, not an application. It has to be part of the genetics of the design. What we look for is something whose essence is superb design that is also sustainable.

    “Design excellence was never intended to be that the building just look good. It has to work well, it has to be efficient, and it has to meet certain societal goals — things like energy conservation, best use of available resources, and impact on the community. The whole should be greater than the sum of its parts.”

    On the potential conflict between sustainable design and security: “I don’t see it. I think they actually contribute to each other.” Before 9/11, he explains, Federal buildings, especially in downtown locations, had to build right to the property line; after 9/11, setbacks were increased for security purposes, but this has yielded an environmental benefit. Feiner cites the recently completed Oklahoma City Federal Building. “We were able to get increased setback, and now we’re able to provide funds for plant materials, and the vegetation will grow to the point where the bollards will actually be encapsulated.”

    On pushing the technology envelope: “We’re experimenting [as with photovoltaics]. There are certain things we do where we want to be exemplary. We’re not known for doing off-the-wall stuff. We usually do something that we see has some promise, but it doesn’t mean everything is absolutely proven. I like the analogy of the Life cereal commercial, the one with Mikey: ‘He likes it!’ We want to participate in the dialogue that moves the state of the art forward, but that does not mean that we necessarily have to be the leader.”

    On the costs and benefits of sustainable design: “There are low-cost and no-cost issues. You can choose this carpet” — here, he points to the carpet in his office — “which is very sustainable, or you can choose another carpet that is not, at the same price. When we get into whether it’s a gimmick or a real issue, it comes down to life cycle analysis.

    “I was just at Costco, and I could have saved a lot of money buying a 10-year supply of toilet paper, but I have to look in my pocket and see if I have enough money to buy 10 years of toilet paper, and I say no.

    “So, there are two components — first cost and life cycle. And although we all subscribe to the life cycle approach, that’s not how the world really works. There’s a public perception of how much something should cost. When we see how much it costs to do a building, even if there’s a lot of life cycle benefits, if the cost is $300 a square foot and the public thinks it should be $200, then it won’t fly.

    “You have to be accountable to many constituencies — the American people, 535 members of Congress. So, if you put your credibility in the life cycle basket, you do risk the loss of support of your public, which ultimately is the most important.”

    On requiring LEED certification for GSA buildings: “Since the Reagan Administration, this agency has adopted the philosophy that we should use commercial standards. First, we adopted MasterSpec, and that was a major breakthrough. In 1993, the Design Excellence Program was also perceived as an imposition, that to be commissioned by the GSA to do a Federal building, you have to achieve a certain level of design, and talent, and capability. Do we have the right to ask for a higher level of performance? It’s simple — yes.

    “LEED was and is currently the most developed national standard or benchmark — let’s say benchmark — for sustainable design. In the next 10 years that may change, and we would be ready to move in more of a performance direction. We are always willing to evolve as our industry evolves, because we are participants in a commercially based economy.”

    On GSA as a client: “As a government, we are trying to achieve much better energy performance, reduce our costs, and achieve certain legislative mandates. An agent should be there to achieve the highest level of performance that the owner is asking for. We are asking for environmental sensitivity and accountability in the performance of our program, just as we are asking for superb design and meeting our schedule and budgetary imperatives.”

    On the long-term impact of Federal buildings: “How does that building, which is emblematic of the United States Government, how does it contribute to a positive relationship between the public and their government? That is very important to us. Is this an image that shows that public buildings are possessions of the people? Are these buildings inviting? Are they buildings that the people are proud of? They’d better be, because they’re going to be around for a couple of hundred years.”

    Feiner points to the cover of a telephone directory in his office. “I have a new acid test to measure the success of one of our buildings,” he says. “If it shows up on the cover of the latest local phonebook, I’m very happy.

    “If we can show by example a responsible and very positive way that we can affect the built environment, and if that can set some examples to leverage the much larger industry, then that is a very important goal.”

    On the role of the design and construction industry: “The other thing I can’t emphasize enough ... the entire community — design, construction, planning — we have a responsibility that goes beyond just getting things done. The impact that we have on the quality of life not only for ourselves but also for future generations is a very important responsibility. We are the biggest industry in the United States, and we have a lot of talent in this industry, but with great talent comes great responsibility.

    “That responsibility is to further certain societal values and imperatives, of which some are things like the prudent use of resources and creating a sustainable, humanistic environment. It should be a bulwark to make our way of life better.”


    Biographical Brief

    Born
    Oct. 16, 1946, in Manhattan. Raised in the Pelham Parkway section of the Bronx. One older sister, an artist.

    Education
    Brooklyn Technical High School; played clarinet in the marching band. BArch., Cooper Union, 1969; MArch./Urban Design, Catholic University of America, 1971. Graham Foundation Fellow, Catholic University, 1972 (project: redevelopment of Gallery Place in Washington, D.C.)

    Career choice
    “I knew I wanted to be an architect from the age of three, even though I didn’t even know the word for it. I was always playing with blocks and my Lincoln Logs, and I remember one day my grandfather saying to my parents, ‘Look, the architect!’ Of course, they wanted me to be a doctor or a dentist, or at worst an engineer.”

    Experience
    Gruen Associates; M. Paul Friedberg and Associates; Naval Facilities Engineering Command. Joined GSA in 1981; appointed chief architect in 1996.

    Family life
    Lives in a tract house in Fairfax County, Va. Wife Frances is a program analyst for the Energy Department. Son Lance is acting director of real estate for the Commerce Department (“Can you believe it? My son’s a client!”) Daughter Melissa works for the sheriff of Loudoun County, Va.

    Avocation
    Likes to travel to view great buildings. “My wife comes along for the ride.” Most recent trip: 2+ weeks in China.

    Favorite author
    Sue Grafton. “I borrow mysteries from my wife.”

    The boots
    “I got my first pair at age 16, at 14th and Broadway.” Owns 15 or 16 pairs, buys them at clearance. Best buy: $99 for a pair of Tony Lama’s at a discount place in Orlando.

    The haircut
    “I was in my hotel room at the AIA convention in Houston in 1991, and I looked in the three-way mirror and saw that I was losing some hair, so I made a design decision and got the flat-top. My wife didn’t talk to me for a week.”

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