The late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture, written in 1962 while he was serving in the administration of President John F. Kennedy, have greatly influenced public building design over the last 50 years. The principles live on as the cornerstone of the U.S. General Services Administration’s (GSA) Design Excellence Program.

In honor of the 50th anniversary of the Guiding Principles, the GSA convened a symposium in May in Washington, D.C., in conjunction with the American Institute of Architects convention. To inform the discussion, the GSA asked 25 distinguished design professionals and others to update the Principles to reflect the opportunities and challenges of the next 50 years.

ULI CEO Patrick Phillips, noted that Senator Moynihan was the 2001 recipient of ULI’s highest honor, the J.C. Nichols Prize for Visionaries in Urban Development. “We strongly affirm the ideas stated in the preamble to the Guiding Principles,” Phillips told the group. “To amplify and expand those principles, we suggest that, where possible, federal facilities should be located so as to reinforce the vitality of existing urban areas, taking advantage of existing infrastructure.” In proposing a new principle, Phillips said that “federal facilities should be built for the long term; where possible, they should be made capable of adapting to new user requirements, occupants, or uses.”

ULI’s ideas were shared by symposium speakers, who began by summarizing Moynihan’s original principles.

  1. The policy shall be to provide requisite and adequate facilities in an architectural style and form which is distinguished and which will reflect the dignity, enterprise, vigor, and stability of the American national government.
  2. The development of an official style must be avoided. Design must flow from the architectural profession to the government and not vice versa. The government should be willing to pay some additional cost to avoid excessive uniformity in design of federal buildings.
  3. The choice and development of the building site should be considered the first step of the design process. This choice should be made in cooperation with local agencies. Special attention should be paid to the general ensemble of streets and public places of which federal buildings will form a part.

To discuss the Principles and how they might evolve, former ULI chairman Marilyn Jordan Taylor, dean of the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Design, moderated a panel that included David Burney, commissioner, Department of Design and Construction, New York City; Walter Hood, principal, Hood Design; Kairos Shen, chief planner, Boston Redevelopment Authority; and Randall Mason, who chairs the University of Pennsylvania’s Historic Preservation Program.

The Guiding Principles were written in1962, when American cities were doing poorly and urban renewal destroyed parts of cities in order to rebuild,” recalled Shen. “Since then, cities have gone through a renaissance, but we need to use innovative funding approaches, such as public/private partnerships, and create buildings that have multiple uses.”

“An example of how cities have changed is the public library,” said Burney. “Andrew Carnegie funded construction of more than a hundred libraries, which were classical mausoleums for books. But today, libraries have become more like community centers—gathering places where immigrants come to access knowledge, where children stay after school.” Shen agreed, noting that Boston is building a new library as an “innovation center” where people can exchange ideas, and they are considering leasing some of its space for retail use.

“Buildings must be able to adapt,” Shen said. “Great places, like the world’s great retail streets, undergo constant transformation even if their physical structure remains the same. I think the Guiding Principles should have a more contemporary definition of durability.”

Other panelists affirmed the notion that federal buildings—in fact, all public buildings—should serve the people and their ever-changing needs. But that idea is not new, said architect Allan Greenberg in a panel moderated by Vanity Fair contributing editor Paul Goldberger. “The United States is unique among the nations in designing public buildings that reflect the opening verse of the Constitution: ‘We the People.’ George Washington himself helped design the U.S. Capitol, which originally had 32 entrances to welcome citizens.”

But not all federal buildings since that time have been designed with the public in mind. The Supreme Court, for example, was designed by noted architect Cass Gilbert to convey the dignity and importance of the Court as an equal branch of the U.S. government. Even back in 1935 when the edifice was completed, at least one Supreme Court Justice, Harlan Fiske Stone, called it “almost bombastically pretentious.”

Fiske’s view was echoed at the Moynihan Symposium by no less than current Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer, who said that the building is “designed to put the public off; judges are not kings, we are human.” For this reason, Breyer noted, he participated in the design of the Boston courthouse, helping to create a building that will “serve courthouse functions efficiently, and at the same time tell the public that what goes on here is important, but is not overwhelming.”

Serving on the panel with Justice Breyer was Harriet Tregoning, director of the Washington, D.C., Office of Planning. “The Guidelines have had a profound effect on buildings in Washington, but that has depended on the economy, security, and federal government leadership. It has been a carnage to see what has happened since the Oklahoma City bombings, as if security trumps all other principles in building design and retrofit.”

The panelists agreed that meeting the federal government’s new security requirements with good design is a challenge that will remain in place for the foreseeable future. Suggested architect David Childs of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill: “You can still design a good building and meet security requirements, as long as the architect has a great relationship with the client.”

These days, public buildings should not only be designed to meet public needs, but they almost always require public input, which creates a challenge in itself, said Mason. “Public discourse has mitigated against good public design with extreme positions that create a different conversation,” he noted. “We have unleashed the public for very good reasons, but we don’t know how to harness the public for the best of reasons.”

“We tend to think of the public as a hurdle, not a client,” remarked Hood. “If you work on a public space, you need the public’s participation. Americans are best with these types of decisions at moments of crisis: we created a new design culture in New York City following 9/11, while in San Francisco, the earthquake created momentum for redeveloping the waterfront. With or without a crisis, however, we need strong leadership.”

Speakers at the symposium agreed that while the Guiding Principles still ring true after a half century, innovation is the key to the future success of public building design. “There is great benefit to responsible experimentation,” said Taylor. She concluded by quoting the great architect Daniel H. Burnham: “Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood.”