This blog was written for the AIA Blog Off on the theme “What does architect as leader mean to you?”
Architects and designers are trained in school to be creative and critical thinkers. We are shaped and molded into being the purveyors of ideas that can have a positive influence not only on the built environment, but society in general. By the very skills and talents which architects and designers possess, we are inherent problem solvers.
In fact, one of our country’s greatest politicians, Thomas Jefferson, believed that architecture embodied the soul of his new country–a building was a metaphor for American ideology, the process of construction equal to the task of building a nation.
So why aren’t there more architects and designers working on the national and global stage to solve pressing social, environmental and economic challenges? Currently, lawyers comprise 37 percent of all U.S. senators and nearly 24 percent of all U.S. congressmen. Banking and business occupations account for 20 percent of the Senate and 22 percent of the House. According to the AIA, in the last 50 years, only one architect has served in a national capacity: U.S. Congressman Richard Swett, who represented New Hampshire from 1990 to 1994.
Why aren’t there more architects on a national or global leadership level influencing the policy that ensures positive change?
In his 1968 keynote address to the AIA Convention in Portland, Oregon, Whitney Young, Jr., head of the Urban League at the time, challenged architects on issues relating to social responsibility and diversity within the profession. His words were biting and forceful:
“As a profession, you are not a profession that has distinguished itself by your social and civic contributions to the cause of civil rights, and I am sure this has not come to you as any shock. You are most distinguished by your thunderous silence and your complete irrelevance.”
Most of us have read the dismal statistics regarding the potential brain-drain in the architecture profession as the result of architects leaving, architecture grads pursuing other career paths, and too many high school graduates not even considering architecture as a vocation. I believe this is in part because the profession of architect has lost its way in mainstream consciousness. We have become less relevant, we have become more commoditized—largely because we are not inserting ourselves into public dialogue as leaders of the discussion and instruments of change. Young people want to enter a profession where they feel they can make a difference, and while architecture certainly is a vehicle to do that, we have fallen off in our determination to execute it properly.
Forty-five years after Young addressed that homogenous AIA audience, perhaps the profession is better poised to embrace his advice:
“It took a great deal of skill and creativity and imagination to build the kind of situation we have, and it is going to take skill and imagination and creativity to change it. We are going to have to have people as committed to doing the right thing, to inclusiveness, as we have in the past to exclusiveness.”
I wonder about the concept of architect as political hero. I believe that if we don’t go forward with that idea in mind, then we will never fulfill our true potential, that our profession will languish in obscurity. As architects, we are the builders of dreams. I propose that we can and should build dreams beyond the tangible world of the built environment. We have much to contribute to the shaping of public policy that can improve the world. And I argue that there has never been a better time for us to begin.