Object Lesson


Face of the Nation

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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.


Comments (1 Total)

  • Posted by: George Siekkinen | Time: 10:19 AM Tuesday, February 13, 2007

    Greetings, Buildings created for governmental purposes often have very long lives - particularly when they have iconic roles as the places for justice, administration, or legislation. The architect has many very important duties in responding to such a commission and its program,budget,and schedule. Being responsive to the customs and traditions of the community in which the design will be realized is one of those duties. Given the times we are in, one must further be responsive to the environment and the uses of resources and energy. To serve in a public design capacity is very akin to being a judge in that the decisions will have impacts and be visible far beyond the life of the particular architect. Good will to all those participating in such endeavors. George Siekkinen, Washington, DC

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About the Blogger

Ned Cramer

thumbnail image Ned Cramer is editor-in-chief of ARCHITECT, and editorial director of ARCHITECTURAL LIGHTING, ECO-STRUCTURE, and METALMAG, published by Hanley Wood, a Washington, D.C.-based business media company. Prior to joining Hanley Wood, Cramer served as the first full-time curator of the Chicago Architecture Foundation (CAF), where he organized public programs and exhibitions such as "A Century of Progress: Chicago's 1933-34 World's Fair" and "New Federal Architecture: The Face of a Nation." At CAF, projects under Cramer's direction received support from foundations and corporations such as Altria, Boeing, the Driehaus Foundation, the Graham Foundation, and the McCormick-Tribune Foundation. He speaks regularly on architecture, design, and related issues. The Avery Architectural Index lists nearly 100 articles with Cramer's byline, many written in his former capacity as executive editor of Architecture magazine. The recipient of an Arts Administration Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, Cramer has held positions at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., and the Menil Collection in Houston. Cramer is an alumnus of the Rice University School of Architecture. He was born and raised in St. Louis.