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Design Doctrine: Five GSA Case Studies

Five buildings from across the nation illustrate Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s “Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture” in stone, mortar, steel, and concrete

By Elizabeth Milnarik

A seemingly inauspicious and obscure document that has profoundly impacted how the nation’s largest landlord commissions and builds architecture, the “Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture” was written 50 years ago by a Kennedy Administration assistant and is over and done with in just 500 words.

But Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s mini-treatise on the public role of federal architecture has seen its stature grow steadily over the decades. On May 16, the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) hosted the Moynihan Symposium on Public Design in Washington, D.C., in conjunction with the 2012 AIA National Convention, to mark this anniversary.

In 1949, President Truman created the GSA, which assumed the authority to commission and construct federal buildings from the Treasury Department. A decade later, the government was in trouble—it had not kept pace with its own internal growth. President Kennedy’s Secretary of Labor Arthur Goldberg formed a committee on federal office space to investigate how to expand inside (and beyond) the Beltway. The committee would also tackle widespread critiques of banal federal architecture, and in particular, the inchoate development along Pennsylvania Avenue.

Goldberg assigned his special assistant, Daniel Patrick Moynihan (later a U.S. senator from New York), to chair the committee, and the rest is history. In what was ostensibly a white paper on the narrow question of office availability, Moynihan declared a broad architectural theory on how the government should commission public space.

Looking back on these principles on the eve of the symposium (which will be free and open to the public), it’s clear that Moynihan left room for interpretation and adaptation over the years. Here are five buildings—one from each decade since Moynihan’s declaration—that illustrate how the GSA has struck a balance between consistently good design and constant experimentation.

1960s: Robert C. Weaver Federal Building

1970s: Kluczynski and Dirksen Federal Buildings

1980s: Juliette Gordon Low Federal Building and Ernest Hollings Judicial Center

1990s: U.S. Courthouse in Old San Juan

2000s: San Francisco Federal Building


Recent Related:

ARCHITECT Magazine: Design Doctrine--Fifty years strong, GSA’s “Guiding Principles” are a working theory on good design

A Story to Tell: Washington, D.C.’s Mid-Century Modernist Core

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User’s Guide: The General Services Administration’s Design Excellence Program

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Visit the Public Architects Committee website on AIA KnowledgeNet.

Check out materials from the 2012 Public Architects Workshop.

Visit the Historic Resources Committee website on AIA KnowledgeNet.


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