Video screens above the white leather Mies van der Rohe chairs are flashing an intoxicating mix of buildings—built not by Mies but by Uncle Sam. Images fly by of U.S. government buildings in Chicago; Miami; Memphis, Tenn; Orlando, Fla.; St. Paul, Minn.; Cape Girardeau, Mo.; San Francisco; and Newark, N.J. They are a sampling of the $12 billion worth of works in progress that Leslie Shepherd, the chief architect of the General Services Administration (GSA), is overseeing from his modernist aerie in Washington, D.C.
“Never a dull moment,” Shepherd says on a December afternoon, acknowledging the demands of a job he held unofficially from January 2005, when his legendary predecessor, Edward A. Feiner, stepped down, until late November, when his appointment was announced.
On the day we meet, Shepherd, 49, is dressed in shades of gray. While Feiner stood out in cowboy boots, Shepherd's 6-foot-tall frame is anchored by black lace-ups. (“I have eight pairs of the exact same shoes,” he says.)
The previous week had proved more challenging than most. Down the gleaming white corridor, itself a model of federal design, jurors had been winnowing entries for the 11th round of the Design Excellence Awards. The best courthouses, federal buildings, border stations, renovations, and art commissions will be honored on March 29. “I can say I personally touched half of those,” Shepherd says. “I hope each project is better for it.”
That same week, Shepherd also held a daylong, get-acquainted session with Thomas Gordon Smith, a classicist architect who teaches at Notre Dame. Widely rumored as the agency's choice for the top job, Smith was appointed to a federal architecture fellowship instead. Shepherd says he welcomes the “additional perspective.”
In lieu of a peace pipe, the two hatched a plan for an autumn symposium on style. The working title is “Form and Meaning in Federal Architecture.” The steering committee starts with traditionalists Alan Greenberg, Hugh Hardy, and Robert A.M. Stern. Shepherd quickly characterizes the effort as a natural sequel to a 1990s symposium on modernism. He waves a copy of the final report. Its silver-gray cover perfectly matches his Richard Meier–designed watch.
After 18 years at the GSA, Les Shepherd exudes the practiced confidence of an Olympic gymnast on the balance beam. If there is a storm brewing between classicists and progressives, he makes it clear that he will be the voice of calm.
“There isn't a style; no one has predetermined anything,” he says. “We're always going to be looking for the best design talent. There's just not a single solution.”
Growing up in Mississippi, Texas, and New Mexico, Shepherd envisioned himself as an artist, but he abandoned the idea after hearing too many “starving artist” stories.
He set his sights on architecture while attending junior high in a thin-shelled concrete structure that reminds him of work by Bruce Goff. After earning a degree from Texas Tech, he worked on the adaptive reuse of a high school in Albuquerque, N.M. He married the developer's daughter, moved to California, and began his career with the GSA.