Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture

In 1962, while writing a report to President Kennedy on the subject of federal office space, a young Daniel Patrick Moynihan penned what has become known as the Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture, a forward thinking pronouncement on how the government should further the interests and aspirations of the American people in its public buildings.

Fifty years later, these directives still shape and form our mission in the Public Buildings Service and they have become the cornerstone of GSA’s Design Excellence Program. Senator Moynihan's principles are both the standard to which we must elevate our efforts and the yardstick by which we must evaluate our work.

Report to the President by the Ad Hoc Committee on Federal Office Space, June 1, 1962.


In the course of its consideration of the general subject of Federal office space, the committee has given some thought to the need for a set of principles which will guide the Government in the choice of design for Federal buildings. The committee takes it to be a matter of general understanding that the economy and suitability of Federal office space derive directly from the architectural design. The belief that good design is optional, or in some way separate from the question of the provision of office space itself, does not bear scrutiny, and in fact invites the least efficient use of public money.

The design of Federal office buildings, particularly those to be located in the nation’s capital, must meet a two-fold requirement. First, it must provide efficient and economical facilities for the use of Government agencies. Second, it must provide visual testimony to the dignity, enterprise, vigor, and stability of the American Government.

It should be our object to meet the test of Pericles’ evocation to the Athenians, which the President commended to the Massachusetts legislature in his address of January 9, 1961 : “We do not imitate-for we are a model to others.”

The committee is also of the opinion that the Federal Government, no less than other public and private organizations concerned with the construction of new buildings, should take advantage of the increasingly fruitful collaboration between architecture and the fine arts.

With these objects in view, the committee recommends a three point architectural policy for the Federal Government.

  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. Major emphasis should be placed on the choice of designs that embody the finest contemporary American architectural thought. Specific attention should be paid to the possibilities of incorporating into such designs qualities which reflect the regional architectural traditions of that part of the Nation in which buildings are located. Where appropriate, fine art should be incorporated in the designs, with emphasis on the work of living American artists. Designs shall adhere to sound construction practice and utilize materials, methods and equipment of proven dependability. Buildings shall be economical to build, operate and maintain, and should be accessible to the handicapped.
  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. Competitions for the design of Federal buildings may be held where appropriate. The advice of distinguished architects ought to, as a rule, be sought prior to the award of important design contracts.
  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. Where possible. buildings should be located so as to permit a generous development of landscape.

Democratic by Design: Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture

Last Reviewed: 2019-02-26