A lot of things come to mind when I think about the annual AIA Convention; electoral politics isn't one of them. But today's opening keynote put politics front and center in a variety of ways. And judging by the vibes I felt coming off the standing-room-only crowd, the topic was about as welcome here as it is at Thanksgiving dinner when your crazy uncle (regardless of political persuasion) gets started with his conspiracy theories.
Perhaps the most awkward moment was when Mayor Vincent Gray, after an appropriate and lovely speech about D.C. as "a museum of historical design and a living hub of architectural innovation" couldn't resist the urge to bring up D.C. Statehood—an issue most of the people in the room were unlikely to know or care about (as a former resident of the District, I confess applauding, but I was almost alone).
Then Earl Blumenauer, Hon. AIA—U.S. Representative from Oregon and member of the Congressional Bicycle Caucus—took the stage to address a topic that's a lot closer to home for architects everywhere: livable cities. Did you know that the last time the AIA Convention was held in D.C., there were no designated bike lanes?
Still, I could literally see people squirming in their chairs when Blumenauer started talking about how "there's a little bit of controversy on Capitol Hill" and discussing the transporation bill that "couldn't even be brought to a vote" because "it was designed to be a partisan vehicle."
The crowd warmed up when he called us to be "The Four Horsepeople of the Apocalypse of Livability," but things were still tense when he started talking about the number of politicians such a large membership could help elect "for one latte a month." But after the brief pitch, his closing words reminded people that sustainable cities are not really about politics: "The largest base in America is people who want livable communities," he said, adding that "the widest coalition waiting to be mobilized is the people who depend on you. The profession needs you stepping up as never before. At the same time, people want to hear your message. Don't disappoint them."
It's uncomfortable talking politics, and I'm sure that AIA members run the political gamut, but every once in a while we get one of these sharp wake-up calls reminding us that collective action has to go beyond what the market can provide; it requires us to work together in organized ways (typically government structures) to make life better for everyone.
David McCullough picked right up where this conversation ended and managed to elevate the issue of politics and talk more broadly about democracy, culture, and the way architecture connects the two. His circumspect pace and the absence of PowerPoint slides were refreshing.
"There is no such thing as a self-made man or a self-made woman," he said. "Great works are done as joint efforts. America is a joint effort. Congress—when it functions—is a joint effort." He was talking not only about groups of people working together to change things (to build bike lanes, for example) but also the connections made among people who never meet and those who can never meet because they live at different times.
"All we know of the Etruscans is their art and architecture," McCullough said. He looked forward to a time when all the "politics and speechifying and wars" of the present day will be long forgotten. "Maybe all they'll know about us is our art and architecture," he said, encouraging architects to view their work in the light of history.
While that might seem a lofty goal when you are fighting tooth and nail to keep a rainwater catchment system or upgrade to more efficient windows, McCullough urges us to try: "Keep the faith in what you got into this great profession for in the first place."
Drawing on his most recent book, The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris, McCullough also told the story of sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, who, already prone to depression, was diagnosed with cancer while in Paris and decided to drown himself. As he approached the Seine, however, he saw the sun rise over the Louvre "and was transformed by it, and said 'I don't want to die; I want to live'."
Having been in a lot of buildings that made me feel just the opposite way, I can see his point. As he said, "architecture is around us, making us like or dislike where we are, and often we have no idea what's going on."
For architects and others in the industry trenches, though, did all this high-flown language about great buildings living on and transforming people's lives speak to you? Or was it out of touch with how you feel about your everyday work? Maybe a little of both? Let us know in comments.
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