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Symposium Examines Federal Architecture on 50th Anniversary of Moynihan’s Landmark Design Principles

The GSA and the AIA celebrate Daniel Patrick Moynihan and his “Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture.”

By Mike Singer

“Not since Thomas Jefferson has there been a public official who so understood architecture as well as Daniel Patrick Moynihan,” said Paul Goldberger, Hon. AIA, contributing editor at Vanity Fair.

Goldberger was one of many thought leaders, including a Supreme Court Justice, who gathered at an afternoon symposium sponsored by the General Services Administration (GSA) yesterday to celebrate the legacy of the late senator who perhaps more than any other 20th century public official gave new vision to federal building design. “He saw federal government buildings as a way to show what we believe in and what we stand for,” said Goldberger, the Pulitzer-Prize winning architecture critic. ‘Dignity, enterprise, vigor, stability’ are four words in his guiding principles. Is it possible for a single building to embody all of these?”

For creating these principles that have continually pushed federal architecture to embody the aspirations of the nation that commissioned it, the AIA presented Moynihan’s daughter Maura Moynihan with a Presidential Citation honoring his work at the symposium. The citation, signed by AIA 2012 President Jeff Potter, FAIA, cites how the principles Moynihan drafted “renewed the promise of this nation’s founders, who believed that what we build should reflect our highest ideals.”

Goldberger's question was one of many raised about the continuing relevance of the words Moynihan penned in his June 1962 report to President John F. Kennedy on federal office space, a section of which has since become known as the Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture.

A forward thinking pronouncement on the role of government and design in public buildings, Moynihan’s principles said, in part, “the design of Federal office buildings, particularly those to be located in the nation’s capital, must meet a two-fold requirement. First, it must provide efficient and economical facilities for the use of Government agencies. Second, it must provide visual testimony to the dignity, enterprise, vigor, and stability of the American Government.”

Fifty years later, many of Moynihan’s directives have become a cornerstone of GSA’s Design Excellence Program, a program whose goal is to make each public building both an individual expression of design excellence, and part of a larger body of work representing the best that America’s designers and artists could leave to later generations.

What Public Buildings Mean in a Democratic Society

Panelists at the afternoon symposium, sponsored by GSA the day before the start of the AIA Convention, pondered what public architecture says about the American experience. Quoting her father Daniel, Maura Moynihan said, “The point about public architecture is that it’s public, with the notion of ‘civitas,’ of a person to be there and to participate.”

Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer, a symposium panelist who worked with architects on the design of the First Circuit Federal Courthouse in Boston earlier in his career, recalled how architect Cass Gilbert penned the most famous phrase in American law: “Equal Justice Under Law.”

“He wrote that phrase because it fit inside the pediment that frames the steps leading to the front entrance of the U.S. Supreme Court,” said Breyer. “Architecture can help people understand what their judicial system is about. Tell the public that it’s serious and important, but not overwhelming—it’s your building, not the judges’ building.”

“The first words in the U.S. Constitution are ‘We the People’”, said Allan Greenberg of Allan Greenberg Architect LLC. “‘We the People’ implies these are our buildings. In the original U.S. Capitol, there were 32 entrances. In contrast to royal palaces in Europe, it was an open building. Under the dome was the Hall of the People and the House and the Senate were off to the sides as secondary spaces. The symbolism of pediment, dome, and central space belonging to the people is a key theme of public architecture from colonial times to the 1940s.”

Security and Openness at Public Buildings

One thing that Moynihan’s principles didn’t explicitly address were the security threats that now endanger some of the open and transparent spaces he advocated for. “It’s as if security trumps everything else in design now,” said Harriet Tregoning, director of the Washington, D.C., Office of Planning, “with the attitude that the public should be put through a public ordeal to get into a building—the welcoming feeling is gone. Agencies spend money on communications and branding now, but what does their building say about the image of what is happening at the agency?”

“[The] GSA is paid to push security to nth degree,” added Breyer, who recalled how security concerns recently led the government to no longer keep the front doors to the Supreme Court open as the main entrance, routing visitors through an alternate side entrance instead.

Even after more and more onerous security concerns crept into designers plans, Moynihan worked to resolve them in the best designed way possible. “When building embassies and other government buildings abroad, you want to be welcoming, but after Oklahoma City, security didn’t allow it,” said David Childs, FAIA, consulting design partner at SOM. “We won the Ottawa commission for a new American Embassy in Canada, and when Moynihan heard the site was being moved to the hinterlands, he was desperate to get it back to the city. He believed buildings should be open and transparent, particularly in embassies.”

If Architecture, Why Not Infrastructure?

Symposium panelists called for more innovative thinking about how to think about federal buildings, advocating for more nimble uses and fewer singular programs and functions. “We need to think about site programming, thinking about public buildings not only in terms of the roles they play for themselves, but for the future,” said Kairos Shen, Chief Planner for the Boston Redevelopment Authority. “Public infrastructure isn’t just physical, it’s social. People are looking for a social infrastructure that makes it worth moving to or staying in a city. We have to take a holistic approach. It’s not just about individual buildings.”

“Poor infrastructure corrodes the public realm,” said David Burney, FAIA, commissioner, of New York City’s Department of Design and Construction. He advocates for federal design principles used by the GSA to extend beyond buildings and include any infrastructure undertaken by the Department of Transportation, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, National Park Service, and other agencies involved in the federal built environment.

The joint symposium found common ground between the GSA’s architectural expression of federal authority and the AIA’s championing of the value of design. “By finding inspiration in Senator Moynihan’s legacy,” said Linda Chero, acting commissioner of the GSA’s Public Buildings Service “we raise the bar on quality... simply--design creates value.”


The Evolution (and Evaluation) of Public Design panel discussion at the Moynihan Symposium. Image by Matt Martin.


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