In Search of an Official Champion of Architecture

(By Roger K. Lewis For The Washington Post)
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By Roger K. Lewis
Saturday, June 27, 2009

Past rulers in Europe, the Middle East and Asia have paid much attention to architecture, in addition to worrying about governing. This has sometimes occurred in the United States, thanks to men such as Thomas Jefferson. But America's political leaders typically are not avid promoters and patrons of inspired works of architecture and urbanism. Could this change?

Abroad, one sees extraordinary structures created over the millennia by monarchs, emperors, pharaohs, popes, czars and sultans. Pursuing what they believed was their right, duty and destiny, autocrats often had both the motivation and the means to build outstanding edifices as well as great public works and inventively planned cities. Once in a while, even modern democracies have had leaders dedicated to creating architectural legacies, such as French President Fran├žois Mitterand.

Traditionally, America's leaders, preoccupied mostly with budgets and reelection, are different. They tend to reflect the attitudes of an essentially pragmatic electorate. Americans care much more about how things work than how they look. Thus, architecture is usually near the bottom of the list of concerns and priorities, if it is on the list at all.

American politicians tend to prefer high-visibility, high-impact projects in which bigness trumps beauty and function trumps form. Most policymakers are content to rely on bureaucrats to take care of design.

Yet occasionally, a politician arrives on the scene who understands and cares about design. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) was such a politician during the second half of the 20th century.

Thanks to Moynihan's persistent, almost single-handed efforts, urban design and architecture gained traction on the federal government's agenda, beginning in the 1960s when John F. Kennedy was president. Moynihan's advocacy ultimately led to redevelopment of unsightly Pennsylvania Avenue and, starting in the early 1990s, implementation of the General Services Administration's Design Excellence program for federal buildings.

America needs more Moynihans at all levels of government, not to build grandiose monuments but rather to enunciate and support aesthetic aspirations for all types of public- and private-sector projects. The appearance of America's built environment would be enhanced if aesthetically enlightened presidents, members of Congress and state governors regularly talked about and championed architecture and urban design.

But there is a risk when prominent public figures are outspoken architecture fans. Rather than advocating the importance of good design generally, they instead might favor and promote a specific style while condemning others. This can be unduly prejudicial and even coercive if one particular aesthetic language appears blessed by officialdom.

History offers examples. Roman classicism was the empire's official style. Two thousand years later, Hitler and Stalin embraced neoclassicism, effectively banning modernist architectural design.

Today, if Britain's Prince Charles had his way, he would do likewise. The Wall Street Journal reported recently that the prince, who profoundly dislikes modern design and much prefers historicist architecture, has criticized Pritzker Prize-winning architect Sir Richard Rogers's modernist design for a London housing project. Through royal-to-royal communication, the prince allegedly persuaded the project development company, owned by the Qatari royal family, to abandon Rogers and his design, presumably in favor of a neoclassical design by another architect.

An enraged Rogers reportedly has requested a government inquiry, claiming that the prince has undercut the government approval process and is improperly using -- and abusing -- his power. In fact, under Britain's parliamentary system, the government can and usually does ignore the prince, but his opinions are still influential. And no matter how Britons feel, at least they are worrying and talking about design.

Fortunately, such a scenario is improbable in the monarchy-free United States. But is thoughtful design advocacy by U.S. leaders and citizens also improbable, now and in the future? Let's hope not.

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

© 2009 The Washington Post Company