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06.05.2012
GSA Shock Absorbers
Architects holding their breath as the country's landlord is engulfed by scandal.
New courthouse in Jackson, MS by Hugh Hardy.
Courtesy H3 Hardy Collaboration

“My eyebrows went up and they haven’t gone down,” architect Laurie Hawkinson said of the recent scandal at the General Services Administration (GSA). The reaction of the Smith-Miller + Hawkinson Architects partner was typical within the architectural community after a report from the Inspector General’s office revealed that the agency’s Western Regions Conference held at a Las Vegas spa back in October 2010 had spent more than $6,000 on commemorative coins for attendees and on clown acts, among other indulgences, on the taxpayer’s dole. Architects’ concerns were coupled with alarm that some of the agency’s hallmark initiatives, such as the Design Excellence Program, would suffer in the political fallout.

Rob Rogers of Rogers Marvel Architects, who has worked on GSA projects both in New York and Washington, D.C., fears that now any design element could be interpreted as an extravagance and even high-profile projects will be forced to have heavy rounds of value engineering. 

Architecture must not “become the butt of jokes, like the $500 hammer,” he said, referring to the Pentagon’s infamous procurement debacle of the mid 1980s. Architecture plays a significant symbolic role, he added, that “has to be talked about with the same rigor of patriotism.”

 
ZGF Architects' Federal Center South in Seattle.
Courtesy ZGF Architects
 

Former GSA chief architect Ed Feiner, who established Design Excellence in 1996 and now runs the Design Leadership Forum at Perkins+Will, is not too concerned about the program’s staying power since it’s codified in law. He also made the distinction that the scandal was limited to a particular division within the Public Building Service’s Design and Construction program, not Design Excellence. The two programs are independent, he noted: “Design Excellence is a procurement process, the way that they select architects, and that shouldn’t change.”

Nevertheless, with the resignation of GSA chief Martha Johnson, interim director Dan Tangherlini has ordered a top-down review of the entire agency. And Congress is conducting its own hearings. The Washington Post reports that some House Republicans, like California Rep. Jeff Denham, want the agency to be dismantled. It’s a stance that Democrats, such as D.C's delegate Rep. Eleanor Holmes, find extreme, though she found conflicts with the agency conducting real estate deals while managing contracts.

The controversial conference was organized specifically for the Pacific Rim region, which includes Arizona, California, Hawaii, and Nevada. With the release of the report, travel budgets for the Northwest, Greater Southwest, and the Rocky Mountains regions were all reduced.

“There’s definitely been a tightening of the belt,” ZGF Architects principal Todd Stine said of his firm’s work with the GSA. “Normal things like basic travel have been tough. It makes it a bit more challenging when the client can’t come to the site.” As part of the Recovery Act, ZGF and Sellen Construction were awarded the contract to redevelop the Federal Center South, the district headquarters for the Army Corps of Engineers in Seattle. The $74 million project, with its eco-friendly adaption of an old building with a new energy-efficient skin, is just the sort of aggressive design approach from Design Excellence that could influence national building trends.


Will locally crafted doors for a courthouse in Jackson, Mississippi be nixed by the GSA in the future?
Courtesy H3 Hardy Collaboration
 
 

Though Tangherlini canceled all pending interagency conferences, he did not put a stop to the Moynihan Symposium, celebrating the 50th anniversary of Moynihan’s report to President Kennedy that created the Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture. The report was the late senator’s treatise on how good design advances American values. “There’s been some concern that the conference will call attention to the controversy,” Hugh Hardy, who worked with Feiner to develop Design Excellence, said two weeks before the event. “They’re all very on edge.” Hardy recently completed a courthouse in Jackson, Mississippi, containing the design flourishes and regional gestures that could easily be appreciated by architectural aficionados but lambasted by beltway penny pinchers, particularly elements that spring from the Art in Architecture aspect of the program.

The courtroom doors for Hardy’s project involved Mississippi-based artist Fletcher Cox spending four years to locally harvest pecan wood. The steel door pulls alone took a local blacksmith months to perfect. Hardy explained that the craftsmanship was meant to convey authority and reverence. “You need to make clear you were involved with an institution that knew what they were doing,” he said. The architect added that the Design Excellence program has always been under threat. “There is a feeling out there that federal buildings should be standardized and we should knock them out like bread boxes.”

The conference, which took place on May 11, offered perhaps the best chance for the GSA to state their case for high quality architecture over standardization. Moynihan’s three-point policy called for all federal buildings to “embody the finest contemporary American architectural thought” and that the “development of an official style must be avoided.” Separating the real estate acquisition from the design, as proposed by Representative Holmes, would preclude the third principle that the “choice and development of the building site should be considered the first step of the design process.”

Tom Stoelker