After a four-year odyssey that took him to development projects around the world, Ed Feiner, former chief architect of the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA), has landed back in Washington, D.C. Effective May 11, he joined Perkins+Will as principal in charge of business development, design, and project delivery.
In over ten years as chief architect, Feiner, 62, brought distinction, attention, and even glory to the GSA. Under his leadership from 1996 to 2005, the administration and its Design Excellence initiative awarded commissions to the country’s most distinguished architects. Feiner went on to work as managing director of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill’s (SOM’s) Washington, D.C. office and then as chief architect at Las Vegas Sands Corporation.
A day after the announcement, Feiner chatted with AN about his experiences and expectations when it comes to government and good architecture.
The Architect’s Newspaper: Where have you been since leaving the GSA?
Ed Feiner: My last four years have been really unbelievable, like a magical mystery tour. After I graduated from government, I accepted a position with SOM as director of the Washington office, and I was there for three years. Then one day, out of the blue, I got a phone call from the chairman of the Sands Corporation. At the time, it was the largest developer in the country. They knew I had experience hiring good architects, and they wanted to move away from themeing to iconic contemporary architecture. I was overseeing millions of square feet of work.
But Lehman Brothers was a major backer, so ultimately we had to freeze construction and design on all the major projects, particularly Macao. [Moshe Safdie’s project in Singapore is still scheduled to open in about a year and a half.] At that point, there wasn’t much design intervention for me because that phase was completed. So I packed my four boxes and went back to Washington, D.C.
What will your responsibilities include at Perkins+Will?
The whole collection. I wanted to have a full range of what a leader within an organization does. They carry a lot of management responsibility and design leadership—not necessarily designing the buildings—but encouraging and mentoring the next generation. For a firm that’s been around for such a long time [since 1935], I was amazed at how young and motivated the people are there. I hope I can keep up!
In terms of business development, where do you think the profession is headed right now?
Publicly funded projects are going to be in vogue again. Not just the federal government work that will be in the pipeline at first. That will filter into state and city governments, so that once they get past this first phase of “shovel-ready” work, there will be a much bigger opportunity for the architectural community.
At the GSA, they’ll basically be retrofitting a huge stock of buildings from the 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s. When you go back and have to improve performance in terms of energy and sustainable design, you’re engaging these buildings in more than painting and putting up storm windows. These projects will become real challenges for top designers. And that’s just at the GSA. The Defense Department has a huge infrastructure, and there’s the Veterans Administration and the State Department. All these organizations are going to start to redevelop their properties.
Support for GSA has varied under different administrations. When did Design Excellence get under way?
I started just three months after Reagan became president, and those years were the only ones in which the GSA did very little. When George H.W. Bush came on, there was a backlog of work, particularly for the courts, and then came Design Excellence.
I really hate when it’s referred to as a program, because it was never envisioned as a design program but as a series of actions we could take to change the nature of design in government. It was all about process. When we started, I would get calls from people out in the field saying they didn’t have enough money to do a particular project and would have to remove some of the “Design Excellence features” on the building!
Design Excellence flourished under Clinton, and continued until the Iraq war strained the budget, and then it slowed down. That it commissioned some of the country’s really great buildings is what I am most proud of.
What do you think the Obama administration will do about architecture?
This is the first administration that I have heard using language I relate to in terms of infrastructure, design, sustainability, and planning. Our profession travels all over the world. We’re doing these wonderful projects in China, India, the Middle East, even Canada. The nature of what’s going up all around is incredible, and then you look here. There is so much to be done to make us competitive again.
The reality is that we have to rebuild our country. I don’t think the government is going to be there to tell people what to do, but it can be a facilitator with a vision. And I am very excited about the new vision. I hope it’s infectious.