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On the Hill, a Heap of Trouble

The statue
The statue "Freedom," viewed from inside the still-unopened Capitol Visitor Center. (By Michel Du Cille -- The Washington Post)

Without an architect to say no to such requests, the Capitol "will look like Swiss cheese," Purnell says.

Harry G. Robinson III, a professor of urban design at Howard University who helped come up with the AIA recommendations for the job -- the names aren't being made public -- argues that the blame for the visitor center delays should not be laid at the feet of the architect.

"It was because senators and congressmen kept on adding to it," he says. Robinson contends architects are more than adequately skilled for managing the job. "Architects are some of the most creative managers around," he says.

Tell that to someone who has had his Architectural Digest fantasies run into the same frustrations that have haunted the visitor center project: budgets exploded, contractors slowing work because of cash flow problems, miscommunication between the creative side and the guys with nail guns and trowels. In the popular vernacular of how Americans hate professionals, doctors are arrogant; lawyers are amoral opportunists; and architects spend your money with wanton disregard of any notion of the bottom line.

So the Capitol Visitor Center fiasco could have any number of other story lines to it. One of them is that architects are having their national moment of being the bad guys, and Congress will use that moment to make a symbolic (and self-vindicating) point. Another is that the AIA is concerned about losing influence.

The organization, founded in 1857, was instrumental in one of the major architectural turning points in the history of Washington. In 1900, to mark the centennial of the capital city, the AIA held its annual convention in Washington, a meeting that became a major gripe fest about the aesthetic direction of the city. They were the nation's elite architects, and they wanted Washington to look like Paris. The effect of the papers, proposals and general discourse of that convention was powerful enough to prod Congress to action. In 1901, Congress formed what would eventually be known as the McMillan Commission, which would put the most significant stamp on the city since Pierre L'Enfant laid it out more than a century earlier.

From that moment on, architects have been deeply and institutionally invested in the running of Washington's built environment.

At the same time, the architects of the AIA who agitated for the City Beautiful in 1900 may have been closer, spiritually and professionally, to Thomas Jefferson -- the nation's greatest architectural dilettante -- than the architect-managers who run the large corporate firms that ply the international trade of architecture today. A hundred years ago, a serious architect could still pretend that his profession was all about "commodity, firmness and delight," to use the Roman architect Vitruvius's famous prescription. Today it is about security, fire suppression, ducting, building information modeling, plus managing office expenses and health-care costs and contracts. The list is only partial.

Which isn't to say that the job is too big for any one individual -- though dividing responsibility in the AOC office is the obvious solution to many problems -- but that the very idea of what constitutes an architect, and a building, has changed. Two centuries ago, one might have said that the Capitol was primarily an expression in stone of various ideas and ideals of democracy. Today, one might say that, especially if you're a hack documentary script writer, but it would be only a very small part of an accurate description of the building. The Capitol, today, is a collection of functions, and only secondarily a building. When something goes wrong with those basic functions -- communications, security, providing bean soup in the cafeteria -- there is immediate dissatisfaction with the vaguely defined entity that manages the building. And a lot of clamoring for change.

The integrity of the building, the long-range planning for the best use of the Hill and the neighborhood that surrounds it, and the environmental impact of the huge facility that serves 535 elected members of Congress are all issues felt less directly and over a longer period of time. So the job of architect of the Capitol isn't just complex, but fundamentally bifurcated -- between managing details and process and numbers, and demonstrating vision, aesthetic intelligence and a larger ethical responsibility to the people of the United States. Most professions have codes of ethics and some nattering about higher ideals, but not many of them -- certainly not medicine or the law -- require one person's brain to work in such radically different ways.

Purnell, the AIA president-elect, is calling back, to add something to his previous remarks:

"You don't have to be a lawyer to be a member of the Supreme Court. Did you know that?" But, he adds, it would be ridiculous to think someone who hadn't passed the bar might be appointed.

There's the crux of the issue. Architects -- who are part of a relatively new profession -- want to be seen as a professionals, like doctors, lawyers and judges. Given the technical complexity of what they do, given that we spend about 95 percent of our lives inside something they have designed, there's no doubting the need for professional architects -- and when they are marginalized in the process of making buildings, as they were for years before reforms at the General Services Administration, buildings get insufferably ugly.

But they also expect their members to be visionaries and bean counters, planners and realizers, all at the same time. Which may, except in rare cases, be an unrealistic expectation. Ask anyone who has hired an architect and he or she will tell you that's what all too many architects are selling: unrealistic expectations. It's the Achilles heel of the profession, and you pick up the bills.


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