Should architects run for office? – Morgan Architecture Critic

Saturday, April 23, 2022

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Great chiefs reduced to figurines for sale at the Mount Vernon gift shop. Lincoln insisted that construction of the United States Capitol dome continue during the Civil War. PHOTO: William C. Richards.

Should architects and designers stand for election? This column often laments the lack of architectural knowledge on the part of those who run, and therefore plan, our city and our state. Entrusting our constructed future totally to politicians hasn’t worked very well. It may be time for urban planners, graphic designers and landscape architects to enter the political arena.

Ignorance of the arts of construction has not always been acquired; for a long time it was quite the opposite: many of our founding fathers planned their own homes and were familiar with contemporary architectural fashions. George Washington, a land surveyor by training, built his house at Mount Vernon in the latest neo-Palladian fashion; he also laid out the gardens based on French and English precedents. Moreover, he actively participated in the planning of the new capital which bears his name and was built according to the plans of a French military engineer. (Andrew Jackson, less aesthetically astute, truncated the grand driveway of Pennsylvania Avenue by placing the Treasury building right in the center of the avenue.)


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At Mount Vernon, Washington specified that wooden walls should look like stone. PHOTO: Library of Congress

Washington and Thomas Jefferson understood the importance of architecture in forming the image of a nascent nation. Although there was no formal training in design at the time, Jefferson was more than an amateur. He entered the contest for the United States Capitol, while his state house for Virginia was the first civic structure based on a specific classical temple. The Pantheon in Rome, another Roman monument, was the model for the Rotunda at the University of Virginia, where ten flanking pavilions each illustrated details of ancient monuments.

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University of Virginia rotunda, with flanking pavilions, 1905. PHOTO: Library of Congress

As president of Princeton University, Woodrow Wilson created a highly influential new version of the American university based on the Gothic of Oxford and Cambridge. He also designed his own house in Princeton in the Tudor style.

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Dormitories at Princeton University in the Gothic style. PHOTO: Will Morgan

Among Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal programs was the Historic American Buildings Survey, which supported an army of struggling architects by employing them to document our built heritage. But FDR was also a failed architect. He was intimately involved in the remodeling of the Oval Office and he even wrote a new case for the White House piano. Additionally, he designed the Roosevelt Library at his home in Hyde Park, New York.

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Roosevelt Library, Hyde Park, NY, inspired by Dutch colonial architecture in the Hudson Valley. PHOTO: Will Morgan

Yet, as the acerbic Baltimore journalist HL Mencken wrote in 1920, “As democracy perfects itself, the office of the president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people.” It seems an alien idea today that our leaders should know anything about how cities are planned or how our buildings – to use Churchill’s phase – shape us. But there have been some bright spots in recent decades, such as design initiatives under President Lyndon Johnson, including the creation of the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Typical was the embarrassing moment during a royal visit to Washington in 1970 when, on a tour of the Capitol, Prince Charles asked House Minority Leader Gerald Ford why the bald eagle was the symbol of America. The eagle was chosen by the founding fathers as the Roman republican symbol, an antidote to the British lion. Yet the future president had no idea of ​​the eagle’s origins, muttering something about a fierce and majestic fowl.

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Bald Eagle, Flye Point, Maine. PHOTO: Allen Myers

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“Mr. Jefferson, architect. PHOTO: Will Morgan

The last architect to serve in Congress was New Hampshire Democrat Richard Swett, who served two terms in the late 1990s. At the same time, Robert Weygand, who represented Rhode Island’s 2nd District, was a landscape architect from training. In the 1970s, Frances Sargent, an MIT-educated architect and ecologist, was the Republican governor of Massachusetts. Sargent was best known for shifting his pro-roadway expansion stance into a vocal anti-highway stance.

Architecture is one of the toughest professions – you have to be an artist, engineer, financial overseer, construction manager, psychologist, spiritual advisor, etc. In Sidney Lumet’s classic film “12 Angry Men,” it’s the architect who guides the controversial jury to a consensus. In short, an architect can be a better leader than a golfing lawyer, and certainly more interesting.

Would a designer want to give up their horribly stressful but perhaps artistically fulfilling job to run for city council, State House, Congress, or mayor? Architects and their fellow professionals need to be encouraged to get closer to power-making. At the very least, any type of designer could inject ideas and perhaps add some spice to the pathetically lackluster campaigns for Mayor of Providence and Governor of Rhode Island.

GoLocal architecture critic Morgan holds an undergraduate degree from Dartmouth and two graduate degrees from Columbia. He taught at Princeton and at Brown. He likes to remind people that the Ivy League is just a collegiate athletic conference.

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