Recycling railroad stations into cultural centers, remodeling the Old Post Office into an office-cum-shops-cum-performing arts center, removing barriers against the handicapped, putting retail stores in the lower floors of government buildings, making government publications not only attractive but readable, designing signs that lead you where you want to go instead of astray . . . .
Bill Lac architecture with the subtitle "Ideas I Have Known and Funded." He's only half kidding.
In the past five years, as director of architectural and environmental arts for the National Endowment for the Arts, Lacy has spent $12 million in grants. He leaves Jan. 11 to become president of the prestigious American Academy in Rome.
So Lacy sat at lunch the other day and pondered the question. Has all that money and five years made any difference to the looks of the land?
"I wouldn't want to go out on a limb and say everything is greatly better," said Lacy. "Three years ago when we were doing a booklet it was hard to find a good contemporary design that was a government building. But it would be easier today.
"And I think it's better, for one thing, because a great many communities became worried about the breaking scandals over the selection of architects and builders so there is increased use of the architect selection panels."
Lacy thinks, as a result, that government architecture eventually will look much better.
A key bill affecting government architecture has been pushed by Lacy. It calls for the government to take a hard look at the possibility of remodeling old structures for new uses: the railroad station turned into a civic or visitors center is a prime example.
Many Washingtonians wish that the city's railroad station had been left as a railroad station and rue the day when somebody said "visitors' center." But there are old schools, office buildings and post offices across the country that could be ornaments to the community and savings to the taxpayer, if recycled.
Which brings up another Lacy program, the Old Post Office. A few years ago, Lacy and Nancy Hanks, the head of the Endowment for the Arts, walked around town looking for the proper sort of home for the Endowment. When they saw the Old Post Office, standing in fear of its life in the Federal Triangle on Pennsylvania Avenue, they said "that's it."
The Old Post Office has one of Washington's most magnificent atriums (as everybody should know by now, thanks to Don't Tear It Down, and the Endowment). The cortile, or inner court, is 99 by 184 feet and rises to a glass roof 196 feet high.
Lacy said in 1974, "If everything moves smartly, we could celebrate the Bicentennial in its nine-story glass roof interior, court, complete with cafes, trees, craftsmen, dancers, actors and eight balconies of audience."
Well, everything didn't move smartly and the Endowment has yet to get its hands on that wonderful building. But the building is still standing, which it might not have been without the Endowment's interest.
Lacy remembers meeting Paul Thiery of the National Capital Planning Commission. Thiery was one of those who wanted to tear down the Old Post Office and make it match the Federal Triangle's chaste neo-classical design. Lacy told him he'd rather make all the other buildings into Romanesque Romantic.
Even if the Old Post Office hasn't been recycled, Lacy feels encouraged that the General Services Administration has spent $400,000 to clean its handsome stone facade. At the Office of Management and Budget, there is a prospectus proposing an $18 million mixed-use remodeling for the building - but sadly (and foolishly. Lacy and a lot of others believe) leaving out the restaurant."You know how some bureaucrats are," said Lacy, "mixed-use to them means putting three agencies in together. Well, maybe in another five years . . ."
Another Endowment program led 45 government agencies to revise their graphics. In some cases this has resulted in more economical, better looking stationery, publications and emblems. In other cases it has meant throwing out nice old funny seals, which at least were interesting to look at (and laugh at, perhaps, but whats wrong with that?) in favor of Helvetica type and white space.
In all, the Endowment has given grants to 600 organizations, towns and cities to encourage them to think seriously about how they could make their communities more pleasant places.
Lacy thinks perhaps his biggest contribution in five years was in establishing the Endowment as the federal design conscience. To that end, he has held a series of Federal Design Assemblies to preach the gospel of good design, and puts out a design newsletter. Whether those attending the assemblies took back the new design religion is not yet clear, despite Lacy's optimism.
These are not happy days for architects. Lacy is a fellow of the American Institute of Architecture, former dean of the University of Tennessee Architectural School, and formerly a practicing architect and he thinks architecture is in hard times.
"I have never seen less confidence in architecture than today, both in the profession and in the public," he said. "I think the profession is in for radical changes."
In the 10-year report he submitted upon leaving, Lacy pointed out:
"We began that decade in a promised land with every architectural office filled to overflowing with the milk-and-honey of pell-mell, tear-it-down and build-it-up. Land, steel, energy and egos - we had plenty of everything to go around except concern for the future. But the future came quickly and in just 10 short years construction fell to the lowest point since World War II and an accompanying widespread unemployment in the field found 2 per cent of the nation's architects out of work."
Lacy, third cup of coffee in hand, expanded on that thought. "Architecture used to be on a different time table. It wasn't fashion.Then we got to the point of putting up set designs, and quickly concrete, exposed brick, all kinds of things became victims of trendiness. Today, the public knows more about architecture than ever before. And what's more, they care about it.
"Look at all these preservation societies across the country. Look at all the books on design. We've got a public today that won't put up with shoddy building.
"I think we're going to go back to quality in building. I think we're come to the end of the throwaway society. I went to a meeting the other day where everybody was talking about our post-industrial age. The words were for low energy, long life and loose fit architecture. In other words, buildings which were sturdy, adaptable and economical. I think that's the way we have to head."
Lacy, an Arkansas boy now in his 40s who has kept his Deep South accent (it deepens just a little when he's around another Southerner), is giving up on Washington. He's renting his Capitol Hill house, and moving to New York. He hopes to spend lots of time in Rome, but his job as president of the American Academy means spending time in the United States looking for money and talking about the Academy.
The privately endowed center gives American artists and scholars a place to live and study in the deep cultural nest of Rome. All sorts of disciplines are welcomed. The 1975-76 community included architect Gunnar Birkert, sculptor Tony Smith, composer Claus Adam. and writers Eleanor Clark and Robert Penn Warren, among others.
No replacement at the Endowment has yet been named for Lacy. The people who believe that architecture is the most important of the arts - as the art of everyday - are particularly concerned about his successor. Unless you live in a haystack, you can't avoid experiencing architecture, for good or bad. Lacy's grants from the Endowment and his academy are doing their bit to make of architecture havens for humans. And that's a worthy task.