Edward Feiner, 75, dies; Revolutionary Look of Federal Buildings

Edward A. Feiner, who, as chief architect for the U.S. government, revolutionized the public image of countless federal agencies by hiri...

Edward A. Feiner, who, as chief architect for the U.S. government, revolutionized the public image of countless federal agencies by hiring renowned architects to design hundreds of courthouses, government labs, border and office buildings, died July 1 in Falls Church, Va. He was 75 years old.

His wife, Frances Feiner, said the cause of death, at a nursing facility, was brain cancer.

Although Mr. Feiner was trained as an architect, he did not do much actual design work during his nearly 35-year public career. He spent most of that time in the General Services Administration, essentially the owner of the federal government.

Mr. Feiner’s task was to oversee the construction of new buildings and the renovation of old ones, starting with the search for an architectural firm. He held outside panels to sort through the submissions to produce a shortlist, then personally picked the winners.

It may not sound glamorous, but with a portfolio of some 8,700 buildings and the construction of dozens more each year, the work has given Mr. Feiner immense influence on the country’s civic image. In 2003, Esquire magazine called him “the most powerful architect in America today.”

Historically, the process of selecting architects was as bureaucratic as one would expect and just as likely to produce bland mediocrity. The winners were almost always large companies, many of which had teams that specialized in navigating government documents.

This often amounted to a trap that deterred young, innovative companies from applying: only those with experience working with the federal government were invited to work with the federal government.

This changed under Mr. Feiner. From the early 1990s he brought excellent design to projects both high profile and obscure. For example, he hired Thom Mayne and his company, Morphosis, to design a high-rise office building in downtown San Francisco and a satellite operations facility for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Suitland, Md.

His list of collaborators amounted to a Who’s Who of modern American architecture. Richard Meier, known for the Getty Center in Los Angeles, and Architecture, a Miami company known for its sensational hotels, both designed as courthouses. (Mr. Meier’s is the Alfonse M. D’Amato United States Courthouse in Central Islip, NY, on Long Island.) IM PeiRobert AM Stern and Kohn Pedersen Fox.

Mr. Feiner was not the first person to insist that good design was in the interest of government. Among the guidelines he sent to interested companies were numerous quotes from “Guiding Principles of the Federal Architecture”, written by Daniel Patrick Moynihan in 1962, when he was a young staffer in the Kennedy administration.

But these guidelines were ambitious, and for decades the government continued to produce lackluster monoliths. It took someone with the contagious enthusiasm of Mr. Feiner to put these recommendations into action.

He balanced determination and charisma with disarming eccentricities: He loved snakeskin cowboy boots and snap-button shirts, and he sported a crew cut to put a drill sergeant to shame.

Mr. Feiner took the civic misconception as an almost personal affront. He kept photos of what he considered architectural “eyes” pinned to his office wall. One day in 1998, standing in Lower Manhattan in front of Jacob Javits’ lumpy Federal Building, he asked a Washington Post reporter, “You look at this building and you say why? Why would you build a piece of schlock in the middle of landmarks? »

Mr. Feiner was frustrated with the lack of new projects during the Reagan-era cost-cutting mania. But the opportunity finally presented itself in the early 1990s, when the government launched a 13-year, $10 billion campaign to build or renovate hundreds of federal courthouses.

Two justices, Douglas Woodlock and future Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, fearing the new projects would be doomed to cramped banality, contacted Mr. Feiner to see what could be done.

The three men created a five-person panel to choose the architect for a new courthouse in Boston and brought in private sector architects and academics as advisers. They finally chose Henry Cobbof the firm Pei Cobb Freed & Partners, which had designed the nearby John Hancock Tower.

The process became the model for Mr. Feiner’s signature achievement: a system he called Design Excellence. Instead of asking companies for piles of documents that often had nothing to do with their design ideas, he asked them to submit a portfolio showing the type of work they had done in the past and the type of ideas they could bring to the current project. .

It has engaged private sector architects to sit on selection panels and it has established specialized programs to develop standards for design issues such as accessibility, sustainability and safety.

Design Excellence opened the door not only to well-established architects like Mr. Cobb, but also to newcomers.

For the Oklahoma City Federal Building, which replaced the one destroyed by far-right terrorists in 1995, Mr. Feiner chose Carol Ross Barneywhose designs for Chicago public schools impressed him with their balance of safety, accessibility, and openness.

“He didn’t look at the number of large office buildings we had built, but at the quality of our work,” Ms Barney said in a telephone interview.

Mr. Feiner’s emphasis on design consciousness over budget consciousness often puts him at odds with Congress, especially tax hawks like Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican, who mocked Mr. Cobb’s courthouse like a “Taj Mahal”.

Mr. Feiner disagreed. Bad design, he repeatedly said, can only diminish public respect for government and what it can achieve; good design, on the other hand, was essential to creating a vibrant civic culture.

“If we don’t want to present our government institutions as dignified and stable,” he told the Washington Post, “what kind of service can we expect from them?”

As Mr. Moynihan did in his “Guiding Principles”, Mr. Feiner insisted that there should be no official federal style; his commissions ranged from the bold metallic forms of Mr. Mayne to the austere classicism of Mr. Stern.

In December 2020, President Donald J. Trump signed an executive order making classical architecture the preferred style for all new federal buildings. President Biden revoked the order two months later.

Edward Alan Feiner was born on October 16, 1946 in Manhattan and grew up in the Bronx. His father, Solomon, owned a business that made metal trash cans. His mother, Martha (Lipsky) Feiner, was a housewife.

Attracted to architecture and design early on, Edward studied both subjects at Brooklyn Technical High School, one of the few high schools in America to offer them as a curriculum. He graduated from Cooper Union, Manhattan, with a degree in architecture in 1969 and from the Catholic University of America, Washington, with a master’s degree in architecture and urban design in 1971.

Mr. Feiner then went to work for the Navy, where he was immediately able to take charge of large-scale projects like hospitals, shipyards and submarine bases. Aside from a short stint with Victor Gruen, a mall pioneer, he remained in the Navy until joining the Government Services Administration in 1981.

After leaving his position as chief architect in 2005, he was an executive at the architectural firms Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and Perkins & Will and worked for Las Vegas Sands, the casino and resort company.

Along with his wife, he is survived by his son, Lance; his daughter, Melissa Feiner Rockholt; and three grandchildren.

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Newsrust - US Top News: Edward Feiner, 75, dies; Revolutionary Look of Federal Buildings
Edward Feiner, 75, dies; Revolutionary Look of Federal Buildings
Newsrust - US Top News
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