Doing More With Much Less Offers a Creative Opportunity for GSA Designers

By Roger K. Lewis
Saturday, February 4, 2006

"Less is more" is the most succinct and frequently cited aesthetic statement uttered by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, one of the best known modern architects of the 20th century. Mies, as he is usually called, was asserting that architectural quality does not depend on elaborate ornamentation or geometric complexity.

Like all such philosophical pronouncements, Mies's dictum never guaranteed good architecture, which ultimately depends on the skill of the designer. Consequently, less talented practitioners, heeding his advice, produced countless buildings stripped not only of ornamentation and complexity, but also of aesthetic vitality. This led architect Robert Venturi more than three decades ago to offer his contrary pronouncement, "Less is a bore."

In design, less can be either more or a bore. But in the face of today's dramatically rising construction costs, a less polemical and more sensible use of these nouns better serves the cause of architecture: Do more with less.

Aspiring to do more with less applies particularly to government entities struggling with tight budgets, yet still undertaking essential capital projects. Perhaps no entity is more aware of this than the General Services Administration. The GSA is by far the nation's largest civilian real estate owner, property manager and developer.

Mounting federal budget deficits and fiscal constraints will compel the GSA to do more with less. But another motivation is at work: a profound commitment by the GSA in recent years to design excellence.

During the 1990s, the Public Buildings Service of the GSA changed directions. As procurer of architectural design services on behalf of other federal agencies, in effect its clients and tenants, the GSA decided that creating high-quality federal architecture should be an explicit, national policy goal. In 1994 it adopted and implemented its Design Excellence Program.

The primary aim of the program was to seek and hire architectural firms, large or small, with proven talent but not necessarily with GSA project experience. Previously, the GSA tended to hire firms with established track records in successfully executing government projects rather then firms whose most salient qualifications were aesthetic.

As part of the Design Excellence Program, the GSA created a cohort of design "peers," experienced practicing architects appointed from across the nation and enlisted periodically to serve on the GSA architect selection and design review panels. I have observed and participated in this process first-hand, having been a GSA peer reviewer since 1998.

Panelists are expected to analyze and critique the work of fellow architects and help the GSA achieve its design goals.

Many GSA projects planned and funded in the 1990s, an era of federal budget surpluses, were new federal courthouses. Designed by some of the nation's most notable architectural firms, every project built over the past 10 years is elaborately composed and often monumental in scale, dimensions and proportions. New courthouses have risen in large cities -- Boston, Portland, Seattle, Phoenix, Cleveland, Omaha, Denver -- as well as in smaller municipalities such as Gulfport, Miss.; Youngstown, Ohio; and Fresno, Calif.

In each of the GSA's new courthouses, courtrooms are technologically state-of-the-art, corridors are wide and lobbies are capacious. Each building is elegantly finished with the best materials: rich marbles and granites, beautifully grained hardwood paneling, plush carpeting, stainless steel hardware and metalwork, top-quality ceilings and light fixtures, high-tech glazing and curtain wall systems.

All the new courthouses reflect a standard of design care and craft of which the GSA, its architects, its tenants -- federal judges, clerical staffs, U.S. attorneys -- and, ultimately, taxpayers can be proud. These projects also reflect generous budgets that are likely to be much less generous in the future.

Now the GSA and its architects will be tested anew. They must do more with less.

Building configurations may need to be simpler, floor areas reduced, ceilings lowered, corridors narrowed a foot or two. Granite and stainless steel may have to give way to gypsum board and pre-finished aluminum. Less expensive ceiling, lighting and curtain wall systems may need to be specified.

Fortunately, simplifying design and making financial trade-offs do not have to produce mediocre architecture. Sufficiently talented designers, believing that aesthetic quality is not necessarily budget-dependent, can still produce great buildings. Such designers know how to make form and space visually dynamic and appealing, yet economical to construct. They know how to edit their designs, how and where to make both artful gestures and artful compromises. They recognize when doing "less" is doing too little. And they even relish tight budgets that, while obliging them to work much harder, can engender creativity that might not occur when budgets are generous.

Despite immense federal deficits, the GSA still can achieve design excellence. It just needs to make sure it hires architects for whom doing more with less is an opportunity, not a burden.

Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor of architecture at the University of Maryland.

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