Federal architect changed face of nation

The architect who changed the face of the federal government across America wears cowboy boots, sports a flat-top haircut and talks like Woody Allen.

"The flat-top was a design decision," explains Edward Feiner in an accent that lingers from his boyhood in the Bronx. Design defines Feiner, who retired last month as the chief architect of the General Services Administration Public Buildings Service.

The agency is among the nation's biggest builders — with about $12 billion in projects now in progress — and Feiner is widely credited with a starting an architectural renaissance. During his three decades in government, Feiner turned the design of federal buildings from dowdy to dramatic, his admirers say.

He began a "Design Excellence Program" that has enticed the best private architects to work on public buildings. For example, acclaimed Atlanta architect Mack Scogin has designed a new federal courthouse for Austin, Texas. Laboratories for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta and a new federal courthouse in West Palm Beach, Fla., were also designed under Feiner's eye.

"Ed has been able to sell the program internally to the government and externally to designers," said Arthur Gensler in supporting supporting Feiner's 2004 induction into the Designers Hall of Fame.

"He's brought in architects who'd never have thought to do federal projects because they were too mundane. And now the best of the profession is fighting over those assignments," said Gensler, a San Francisco architect also in the profession's Hall of Fame.

But back to the flat-top.

In 1991 at the American Institute of Architects convention in Houston, Feiner found himself in a hotel bathroom with three-way mirrors. "I noticed for the first time that my hair was thinning in the back," he said. "So what would I do? I made a pre-emptive strike and got a flat-top. It really was a design decision."

Afterward, however, "my wife did not talk to me for two weeks," he recalled.

As for the cowboy boots, the 58-year-old Feiner has worn them almost exclusively since buying his first pair at a store on 14th and Broadway when he was a teenager. "My toes look like this," he joked, forming the shape of a wedge of pie with his fingers.

Feiner believes the face of a nation is shown in its civic architecture.

"These buildings are the future historic landmarks for the country," he said.

But in the mid-20th Century, the design of these "landmarks" was more lamentable than laudable, he said.

"Historically, the country has been interested in projecting an image through its public buildings since its earliest days. The founding fathers — most of them were closet architects," he said, citing George Washington and Thomas Jefferson as examples.

Until the mid-1930s, federal architecture was "pretty good," he said. The Custom House in Charleston, S.C., is an example of the enduring design quality.

But with the New Deal and then World War II, the need for federal workspace exploded. For the next 50 years or so, expediency replaced excellence in design. The FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C., and the Richard Russell federal building in Atlanta — "a big white box" — are examples of this regrettable period, Feiner said.

A turnaround came during the Reagan administration, said Feiner, who joined the GSA in 1981 after working in the Naval Facilities Engineering Command. He was appointed chief architect in 1996 in an agency that owns 1,600 buildings and spends $1.25 billion a year on construction and restoration.

The "Design Excellence Program" streamlined the competition process for federal projects and put more emphasis on the lead architect. That cut costs and encouraged less established, cutting-edge architects to enter, said Feiner. And top private architects and other designers were made part of the selection process — infusing new ideas and prestige.

"We gave the profession a seat at the table," he said. "That was really a big cultural change."

Feiner "has done an excellent job of raising the bar on architecture in the public realm," said Douglas Steidl, president of the American Institute of Architects.

From a border station in Eagle Pass, Texas, where a "sombrilla" or structural parasol provides shade for federal agents and motorists, to a 276-foot-tall glass atrium of a federal courthouse in Los Angeles, creativity has been infused in federal buildings in recent years.

"Ed has been a passionate and effective advocate for design excellence in the public realm," said F. Joseph Moravec, commissioner of the U.S. General Services Public Buildings Service. "His commitment to the proposition that our public buildings should reflect America's highest ideals has helped GSA become one of the nation's premier patrons of architecture."

But architecture is more than aesthetics, explained Feiner. Form must facilitate function.

At the CDC labs, for instance, the architects studied how scientists relate to each other. In order to facilitate the cross-pollination of ideas, the designers sought to create "chance meetings" between experts in various specialties. Similarly, in federal courthouses, "juries are often deliberating life and death issues," Feiner said. "So what kind of environment do you want to create in a jury room? One where the jurors want to get out as soon as possible or one that is conducive to conversation and thought?"

"Architecture does affect how people act or function," he said.

After leaving the federal government on Jan. 31, Feiner said he "retired for 12 hours" and then became director of the Washington, D.C., office of the architectural firm of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. In time, "revolutionaries become the old guard," he explained. "And I felt that it was my time to move on."

But his revolution lives on. There are the ongoing projects he approved, for example, like architect Thom Mayne's design for an 18-story federal building in San Francisco that features windows that actually open and a perforated-metal "skin" that reflects the sun's heat and minimizes the need for air conditioning.

And his influence is seen in the national search for a successor.

"We have created a state of the art federal program at GSA and we are determined to stay at the head of the pack," said Moravec.

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