Face of the Nation
As 2006 wound down, eyebrows and blood pressures shot up nationwide in response to rumors that the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) had tapped classicist Thomas Gordon Smith as its new chief architect. The collective worry, presumably, was that Smith would backpedal on the GSA's recent advocacy of progressive design and start assigning the agency's $12 billion construction portfolio to his fellow traditionalists. I'm not sure that's a fair assumption, but then we'll never know what kind of chief architect Smith would have made. The job ended up going to Les Shepherd, a GSA veteran who's been filling in since Ed Feiner's resignation two years ago. Smith was given a GSA fellowship.
So the progressives won, right? Not so fast. Shepherd may wear a Richard Meier–designed watch, as ARCHITECT contributor Linda Hales observes in “The GSA Man”, but I've also witnessed him defend a traditional scheme as most appropriate for a federal building in the deep South. Does that make Shepherd a closet classicist? A wristwatch modernist?
I doubt we'll hear Shepherd speak on the record about his personal taste in architecture. He hasn't spent decades in government for nothing; he knows to stick to the party line—the party line, in this case, being the “Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture,” drafted by the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan during the Kennedy administration and adopted as a mission statement during Feiner's tenure.
Here's a quote from the principles: “The development of an official style must be avoided.” Amen to that. The most persuasive and dogmatic of pundits would have difficulty arguing that a single architectural approach could be suitable for a union of 50 states and 300 million inhabitants. So San Francisco gets Thom Mayne; Beckley, W.Va., gets Robert A.M. Stern; St. Louis gets HOK; and the GSA keeps hundreds of peer reviewers on call to make sure that nobody gets out of hand. It's as close as we're going to get to the democratic process in federal architecture.
Let's stick with it.