By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 27, 2007
The new Capitol Visitor Center, which may or may not open sometime in the middle of next year, has become our Long National Home Renovation Nightmare. Just read the congressional transcripts and remove about five zeros from the numbers.
Addressing a House committee last month, a representative of the Government Accountability Office said: "Because of inadequate communication and coordination, some above-ceiling fire protection equipment has to be inspected, even though the ceilings are already in place, risking damage to ceilings and additional work if the inspections reveal deficiencies."
In other words, the GAO, which has been called in to babysit a project that has ballooned from an estimated $265 million to about $600 million, was telling the Congress of the United States that the contractors redoing their basement had somehow managed to slap up drywall without getting the plumbing inspected first. And so it goes.
The growing distress and frustration with the project, which has been depicted in the media as a classic example of feckless oversight, bureaucratic incompetence and congressional narcissism, may now have major architectural consequences. With Congress vetting names for a new Architect of the Capitol -- a 10-year, presidentially appointed position -- there is growing momentum to appoint a "turn-around artist." For the first time in decades, that person may not be an architect.
Needless to say, the American Institute of Architects is deeply concerned that the next Architect of the Capitol may not be a degreed member of their profession. The title has come and gone over the centuries, but at times, especially during major expansions to the building, the job has been done by some of the most storied names in the evolution of the District's federal look: William Thornton, Benjamin Henry Latrobe, Charles Bulfinch. In recent decades, the job has come with huge managerial responsibilities, including a budget pushing $400 million and almost 2,250 employees. The purview of the architect includes things you might expect, including conserving the historic integrity of the nation's most recognizable government building. But it also has some wild cards, such as running the Senate cafeteria (an annual budget buster).
The job has gotten so big, and includes so many things that don't have anything to do with blueprints and design, that there is momentum to appoint someone from a primarily managerial background. But mostly, it's frustration with the performance of Alan Hantman, the previous Architect of the Capitol who left in February, that is driving Congress to consider looking beyond the field of architecture. Howard Gantman, staff director of the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration, which is overseeing the search -- they've hired a headhunting firm -- says the candidates emerging include both architects and people with experience running large campuses and other operations. There are also candidates from the military. The search began in earnest last December, though Gantman is unsure when a list of names will be forwarded to the president. An initial list could emerge from the committee in the next few weeks, but it's unclear if any of the recommendations from the architects institute -- they sent up four names -- will be on it.
"To be frank, it did not appear that the AIA had done as far-ranging a search among their members as we would have liked," Gantman says. "Nor did the candidates they recommended seem to have the managerial experience needed to provide for the full needs of the job at the Capitol." Gantman and the AIA say they're still talking.
Hantman, the man at whose doorstep many people are happy to lay the blame, says the notion of hiring a non-architect would leave the Capitol and other historic buildings without a proper steward, someone senstive to historical issues and the balance between security and access. He argues that the cost overruns and delays came from changes made to the Visitor Center as it was being built, to incorporate post-9-11 and post-anthrax security concerns, and demands for more space from Congress. He also says he greatly improved work conditions in the office, and fairness for minority employees.
"Have we hit it all, all the time?" he asks. "No. But I am very proud of all the changes that have been made."
The job is a classic federal conundrum, relatively low pay for a workload that would draw top dollar in the private sector. On the agenda for the next architect is finishing and opening the new visitor center, and suffering regular and theatrical abuse from Congress until the oohs and ahs of happy constituents, who will no longer have to wait in the blazing sun for tours, start coming in. There's also a long-simmering issue of asbestos in the tunnels of the Capitol that poses a threat to the health of the workers who must go into them. Then there's the drive for perhaps a million square feet of new office space for the House. With a new Democratic Congress, there are also efforts to reduce the environmental impact of the entire federal hill complex (the coal-fired power plant is one of Washington's most egregious emitters of pollution and an ugly blot on its skyline).
But Marshall Purnell, president-elect of the AIA, argues that frustration with the visitor center or past management of the architect's office is no reason to hire someone from outside the field of architecture.
"It's like saying, I went to the dentist and he pulled the wrong tooth, so the next time I'm going to go to a dental hygienist," Purnell says. Only an architect is qualified to deal with the technical health and safety issues of buildings, sit on oversight bodies such as the National Capital Memorial Advisory Commission and properly oversee the preservation of historic spaces. Purnell recounts an anecdote of a member of Congress who wanted better access to a balcony and proposed poking a new entrance through the fabric of the building.
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.