Edward Feiner, 75, Dies; Revolutionized the Look of Federal Buildings

Edward A. Feiner, who as the chief architect of the U.S. government revolutionized the public image of countless federal agencies by hiring renowned architects to design hundreds of courthouses, government laboratories, border stations and office buildings, died on July 1 at a nursing facility in Falls Church, Va. He was 75.

His wife, Frances Feiner, said the cause was brain cancer.

Though 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 at the General Services Administration, essentially the federal government’s landlord.

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

That might not sound glamorous, but with a portfolio of some 8,700 buildings and the construction of dozens more every year, the job gave Mr. Feiner immense influence over the country’s civic image. In 2003, Esquire magazine called him “the most powerful architect in America today.”

Historically, the process for picking architects was as bureaucratic as one might expect, and just as likely to produce bland mediocrity. The winners were almost always large corporate firms, many of which had teams that specialized in navigating government paperwork.

This often amounted to a Catch-22 that deterred young, innovative firms from applying: Only those with experience working with the federal government were invited to work with the federal government.

That changed under Mr. Feiner. Starting in the early 1990s, he brought great design to projects both high-profile and obscure: For example, he hired Thom Mayne and his firm, 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 Arquitectonica, a Miami firm known for its splashy hotels, both designed courthouses (Mr. Meier’s is the Alfonse M. D’Amato United States Courthouse in Central Islip, N.Y., on Long Island). So did I.M. Pei, Robert A.M. Stern and Kohn Pedersen Fox.

Mr. Feiner was not the first person to insist that good design was in the government’s interest. Among the guidelines he sent to interested firms were extensive quotations from “Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture,” written by Daniel Patrick Moynihan in 1962, when he was a young staff member in the Kennedy administration.

But those guidelines were aspirational, and for decades after, the government continued to churn out drab monoliths. It took someone with Mr. Feiner’s infectious enthusiasm to put them into action.

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

He took bad civic design as an almost personal affront. He kept photos of what he considered architectural “horrors” pinned to his office wall. One day in 1998, standing in Lower Manhattan across from the lumpy Jacob Javits Federal Building, he asked a reporter from The Washington Post, “You look at that building and you say why? Why would you build a piece of schlock amid landmarks?”

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

Two judges, Douglas Woodlock and the future Supreme Court justice Stephen Breyer, fearing that the new projects were doomed to cramped banality, contacted Mr. Feiner to see what could be done.

The three men established 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 ultimately selected Henry Cobb, of the firm Pei Cobb Freed & Partners, who had earlier 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 firms for mounds of paperwork that often had little to do with their design ideas, he had them submit a portfolio showing what sort of work they had done in the past, and what sort of ideas they might bring to the project at hand.

He engaged private-sector architects to sit on selection juries, and he established specialized programs to develop standards for design issues like accessibility, sustainability and security.

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

For the Oklahoma City Federal Building, which replaced the one destroyed by terrorists in 1994, Mr. Feiner chose Carol Ross Barney, whose designs for public schools in Chicago impressed him in their balancing of security with accessibility and openness.

“He didn’t look at how many big office buildings we had done, but the quality of our work,” Ms. Barney said in a phone interview.

Mr. Feiner’s emphasis on design consciousness over budget consciousness often put him at odds with Congress, especially fiscal hawks like Senator John McCain, the Arizona Republican, who derided Mr. Cobb’s courthouse as a “Taj Mahal.”

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

“If we’re not willing to portray our government institutions as dignified and stable,” he told The Washington Post, “what sort of services can we expect from them?”

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

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

Edward Alan Feiner was born on Oct. 16, 1946, in Manhattan and grew up in the Bronx. His father, Solomon, owned a company that made metal garbage cans. His mother, Martha (Lipsky) Feiner, was a homemaker.

Edward found himself drawn to architecture and design early in life and studied both at Brooklyn Technical High School, one of the few high schools in America to offer them as a course of study. He graduated from the Cooper Union, in Manhattan, with a degree in architecture in 1969 and from Catholic University, in 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 the lead on large-scale projects like hospitals, shipyards and submarine bases. Aside from a short stint working for Victor Gruen, a pioneer of the shopping mall, he stayed with the Navy until joining the Government Services Administration in 1981.

After stepping down as chief architect in 2005, he worked as an executive at the architecture firms Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and Perkins & Will, and 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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