Ed Feiner: From Government Architect to SOM Director

When it was announced in the beginning of this year that Ed Feiner, the chief architect of the General Service Administration (GSA) and founder of its Design Excellence and the Arts Program, would be retiring as of January 31, the design community knew that it would be losing one of its leaders. No more than two weeks after the announcement word came that Feiner would be joining the Washington, D.C. office of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP (SOM) as director of office operations.

At the GSA, Feiner oversaw the completion of several billion dollars worth of federally funded projects by outstanding architects such as Thom Mayne and Richard Meier; in the process, he ensured that design became an indelible part of government buildings. Metropolis associate editor Andrew Yang spoke to Feiner about his GSA legacy, the challenges faced when implementing design programs, and the promise the private sector holds for him.

What brought about your decision to leave the GSA and join SOM?
It was a very hard decision to make, because the Design Excellence program has been remarkably successful. We really had hoped it would become an exemplary program for other government agencies, not only federal, but state and local as well.

In my observation, most government agencies do not have a strong internal professional presence. They do have talented people, but their [agency] resources are limited; they depend greatly on the private sector to assist them with executing and developing their programs.

I felt that if I really wanted to have a major impact on public architecture, public work, and infrastructure, I could be more effective in touching a broader segment of government than [in my role] in GSA’s program. So I was looking for a firm that was involved in governmental types of programs. That’s what appealed to me about SOM.

Will you be working on just government projects, or all sorts of projects?
It’s very hard to define what government is. When you look at what is happening, there are so many quasi-governmental authorities and associations that now take on infrastructure responsibilities.

New York City just implemented a design excellence program. What kinds of challenges do local agencies face in implementing such programs?
What I’ve observed is that other governmental groups have tried to do something like the GSA, but they gave up too fast. Once they face the first hurdle with the bureaucracy, they say, “Ah, we can’t do it here.” Everything involves individuals and personalities. If you have people who have a very strong commitment to getting something done, then they don’t flinch the first, or second, or even third time they are questioned.

In many instances the client—which is really the non-design group—doesn’t know what its opportunities are. Very often what I have done in the past is make clients aware of what their horizons are. That is an educational process.

I do believe the success of the GSA program was based on demonstrated achievement. For a city like New York or Chicago, or a state like California, the key to success is to show that whatever reforms you have made are having tangible impact. And it doesn’t happen overnight. Perseverance is very, very important. It took us about five years to actually deliver on a promise. And the promise we made was very limited. We didn’t say, “We are going to change the world.” We said, “We are going to improve the quality of public architecture.”

Five years is a very short time, especially when you’re considering the design and building process.
I consider it a short time, but in a political environment where you have municipal and state elections every four years, five years is a lifetime in the public realm. That’s why very often people give up, because they are concerned that they will not deliver the results fast enough to gain stronger support.

Recently, there was a piece in the New York Times Magazine about how Thom Mayne is establishing himself with his GSA projects. What qualities prevent a project’s design from getting watered down?
The remarkable thing about Thom is that he works with the basic concepts of design, so you don’t have to strip off things in order to meet a budget. What you have is a strong and powerful statement in the very beginning, so that money is not critical to the [building’s] suspense.

What will be your biggest change going from the GSA to SOM?
Obviously, at SOM, there will be much more collaboration, but the peers have often been my collaborators. That will take some degree of adjustment. Also, I’ll be facing people who used to be clients.

So, the scope of projects will be determined by the clients?
I think the projects I’ll get to work on will be much broader, and that’s one of the things I was interested in. If I was going to do anything for the rest of my productive career, I wanted to impact life beyond the portfolio projects that the GSA engages in. I think GSA will still remain very successful. Besides I’ll drive them nuts if they’re not.

Categories: Cities