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In the World of Public Architecture

To understand the dismal state of most public architecture, look only to the method by which our architects are selected.

From federal down to local municipalities, various levels of government own 42 percent of the land area across the United States. Upon all this space our government has erected uncountable works of public architecture—some good, some awful, most simply an expression of how the public is not served by its government.

Those wishing to understand the dismal state of most public architecture need look only to the method by which our architects are selected. Most governmental agencies select their architects following a system known as the Qualification Based Selection (QBS) process.

Originally advocated by the American Institute of Architects as a way of selecting architects that was not based solely on fee, the QBS system purportedly injects the notion of quality into the selection process. But this is just another theory gone horribly wrong. In practice, “qualification based” has become “quantity based,” so firms with lots of experience designing high schools get selected to do more high schools and so on. Lost is any attention to creativity and innovation in the use of materials, in design or the building’s relationship to its physical and historic context.

There is one surprising exception to this rule: the General Services Administration (GSA), the government agency responsible for most federal buildings and the nation’s biggest landlord. The GSA has 193 active construction and repair projects across the country, covering 53 million square feet and valuing $12 billion. Their Design Excellence program originated from Chief Architect Ed Feiner and is a highly creative new take on QBS. The program is built around both a unique process and composition of the selection panel.

Whereas QBS is a single-stage process, the Design Excellence process has two stages. The first stage is all about selecting a lead designer, based on portfolio, design philosophy, prior accomplishments and recognition. Once a short list of potential lead designers has been created, the second stage focuses on their ability to put together a qualified team of associate designers and consultants.

Feiner added another wrinkle. The selection board always includes a private sector architect as one of five full voting members. These architects are selected from a list of more than 200 architects on the GSA’s Peer Review Panel. Architects are selected for this honor based on their creativity and experience and go through a training program at the GSA in Washington.

As a peer reviewer, I can attest to the unique value of this process. Peer reviewers provide three key services. We first help to separate the
chaff from the wheat, recognizing bogus claims and weak proposals based on our experience as professionals. The peer reviewer is then encouraged to elevate the discussion about design, public architecture and the public good. In the final stage, the peer reviewer remains on the project as a design critic while the selected architect develops the design.

The outcome is explosive. The GSA has developed a reputation for hiring young or relatively unknown architects to complete important work.  This work, under Design Excellence, has been honored by virtually every professional critic in the United States and has even been noticed by writers in Europe and Asia. But most importantly, the program has fostered a lively debate about public architecture.

On the one hand, most of the GSA administrators and peer review panel are devout modernists.  They have argued that great modern architecture can both honor the past and lead us in new directions. On the other side are the classicists. They include informed professionals such as Chicagoan Tom Beeby, a peer reviewer and designer of the Harold Washington Library. There are also  critics, including just about every federal judge who wants his or her new federal courthouse to look like the Supreme Court in Washington. They reject modernism as meaningless abstractions, arguing in favor of classical architecture, which people find familiar and understandable (a new courthouse should look like an old courthouse even though we don’t understand the meaning of all that gingerbread—yes, my bias is showing).

Now the battle between both sides is joined. Ed Feiner retired from the GSA nearly two years ago. A replacement has finally been named. Leslie Shepherd, a veteran of the Design Excellence program, is someone who can be expected to carry on the modernist traditions. However, at the same time, GSA has appointed Thomas Gordon Smith to the newly created position of federal architecture fellow. Smith, a classicist and the former dean at Notre Dame’s School of Architecture, had been the rumored choice for chief architect, which touched off a firestorm of criticism in the profession. The GSA’s compromise leaves Smith in a position to represent the other side of the argument without giving him control of the Design Excellence program.

This means that the most important discussion about the nature of public architecture will take place where it should—in the halls of the agency that builds more public architecture in more critically important public places than any other in the United States.

Published: January 28, 2007
Issue: Winter 2007