News
03.04.2011
Comment> It Pays to be Civic-Minded
Eric Davis reminds architects that the profession is an inherently political act.
Plate 87 of Daniel Burnham and Edward Bennett's 1909 Plan of Chicago, as rendered by Jules Guerin.
Courtesy Art Institute of Chicago

For years, I have watched in frustration as architects have been regularly sidelined by politics. Whether in the context of our desire for changes to public policy, or in pursuit of work for public agencies, as a profession we typically show up for battle completely unprepared. When we do “get involved,” it is usually confined to earnest conferences and clientless urban speculations, the political equivalent of howling at the moon.

If instead we remember the example of our successes in the movement of sustainable design and accessibility at turning good ideas into law, we can change how we and our fellow citizens view the proper role of architects in the public arena. We can translate our intentions into meaningful changes. Political action is a part of the job, something critical to our effectiveness whether as professionals or academics. This kind of change requires patience, determination, and the recognition that often, as the saying goes, the perfect is the enemy of the good.

Architecture is an inherently political act. All new construction, even highly context-driven design, is inescapably indexed in relation to, and therefore an explicit comment on, those around it or those of its type. It is also therefore an assertion of the owner’s societal status. The modern movement tried to ignore or deny these connotations, but that was both a sham and impossible.

We are the only profession that is trained to see a world that doesn’t exist yet, but we are maddeningly unwilling to get involved in establishing the policies that set the parameters for programming and design. Decisions are made by those who show up, but architects have largely been absent from the political decision-making whose implications affect their work most. Compare the verdant parkways of urban Long Island with the expressways of Chicago or LA and realize that the deciding factor in the quality of those environments was political will. For the latter, beauty and the natural environment were just not enough of a priority for the people making the budget decisions—and no one made them see otherwise.

Politics has always been something with which some of the most important and talented architects engaged. Bernini, for example, played papal politics to the hilt; his Four Rivers Fountain in Piazza Navona is well known as part of his lengthy rivalry with Borromini. His skill in that area led to such prestigious commissions as the elliptical colonnades at St. Peter’s.

More recently, Thomas Jefferson, America’s only architect president (so far), knew and understood the role politics does and should play in relation to architecture. He clearly was making a political argument with the sophisticated urbanism of his University of Virginia, making it a template for the civil society of the new republic he had helped to create. As Steven Hurtt pointed out in an article in Threshold, even the Constitution itself, as a diagram and as a field for political activity, is directly related to the American continental grid. It established the way we were intended to locate and structure our urban centers across the landscape.

Here in Chicago, the “White City” of the World’s Columbian Exposition (Wright and Sullivan’s aesthetic disdain notwithstanding) required all of Daniel Burnham’s political skills to deal with both local elected officials and national architectural politics. Absent this political tenacity, his efforts to use design to show that a better future was possible would have been limited to beautiful, unbuilt watercolors. The architecture and urbanism of the capitals of many states and nations, including our own, would have been significantly different.

Yet when confronted with an RFQ to design a significant public building (perhaps excepting the GSA’s Design Excellence projects), many if not most architects shrug their shoulders and say, “Well, that’s really just about politics.” Indeed, and that is not automatically a bad thing.

Since the days of Andrew Jackson, the spoils system has meant that elected policy makers should and do have the right to decide who executes policy. Since architecture is the most visible and often the most enduring translation of such policies, this includes designing the buildings for them. It is therefore not only necessary for architects to engage the electoral process; it is proper. If you want to see your body politic move in a particular direction—say, toward even more complete sustainable design—you need to set aside your anxieties and get involved.

So, how? Former Vermont Governor Howard Dean says that in terms of participating in our civil society, just voting earns you a “D.” You pass, but only just barely. To make a difference, you need to volunteer to support a candidate with whose positions you agree, you need to help them raise money, and at some point (deep breath) you yourself need to run for office.

I’m chair of the Empowerment/ Advocacy Committee of AIA Illinois. As much as we work to advocate to the legislature for bills that support our profession’s activities, we recognize that our efforts would be exponentially magnified by having an architect as a member of the legislature. The same is true for your local town, city, or county council, your school board, even your representation in Washington. If architects are going to get the political influence our profession deserves and bring the maximum benefits of good design to our communities, we need to see taking this plunge as part of what we do. We have a saying in politics, “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.” This is why, for example, government capital construction programs typically allocate one-tenth as much on buildings, where most people spend 90 percent of their time, as they do on asphalt. Architects are not at the table.

The way to change such things is via another truism, “Politics is a game of addition.” You have elected representation: Why shouldn’t one of them be you? Identify what issues are important to you and then burrow into the power structure that most directly affects that area of our society. Is it education? Is it the environment? Is it housing? Start at the local level, work from issues where your professional or volunteer efforts give you credibility, build coalitions to support your candidacy, and become part of the “farm system” from which candidates for higher office are usually drawn.

I’m on my second four-year term as an elected trustee of my local township. It’s a pretty modest time demand, but it has dramatically enhanced my access and input to my representatives in our state legislature and in Congress. Have you ever contacted yours about their vote on issues that are important to you? Have you ever organized an event for one you support? If you are dissatisfied with one of them, have you ever tried recruiting or supporting someone to replace them, or run yourself? Have you designed a way to be more effective in steering us to a better world?

FDR, meeting with a coalition whose intentions he clearly supported, famously ended the meeting with, “Fine, now go out there and make me do it.” Power is never given. It can be earned or developed through relationships of give and take, but sometimes it must simply be taken. For too long, architects have sat on the sidelines and watched as lawyers, doctors, and businesspeople from other industries have stepped up and taken a seat at the table. We need to stop being afraid of it, understand it, and make it part of what we do. As someone who has been involved in dozens of political campaigns, I can tell you: Politics is a design problem. We just need to start seeing it that way.

Eric Davis

Eric Davis is an architect with CDM in Chicago.