Monday, October 31, 2016

Architecture and Politics: All Politics is Local

With a monumental presidential election just days away, I thought it would be appropriate to defer my post on steel and wade into the churning water of politics. But not too far! While we like to think of politics as something clear and distinct, that one can choose to participate in or not; I believed that politics is inescapable and saturates our very lives, whether we like it or not. Architecture and politics share this connection.

America's citizens depend on the political process to institute our values, to maintain our standard of living, and to provide for our security. While we tend to automatically associate politics with high profile politicians (witness the twenty or so politicians vying for the presidency), real political action most often occurs at the local level. Former Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill once said that "All politics is local."  That is only a slight exaggeration. How and where our children are eduacated, how much we pay in property or sales taxes, and which roads and parks get constructed, these are all handled at the local level.

Huntsville, AL
In the world of architecture, most associate architecture with the works of a few high profile architects (the so called Starchitects). While this architecture is in some ways influential, its impact on the local level is not significant. The charm and character of the place in which I practice, like a lot of places, has been formed by local architects doing good solid work. No starchitect monuments here.

Just as architecture and politics share commonalities, so too do architects and politicians. When we think of famous politicians or high profile architects, we tend to think of a single powerful individual. For example, the last two elections were won by candidate, then President, Obama. While this statement is technically true, I think that he would be the first to tell you that his accomplishments are not the work of just one man. They are the collective work of a team behind him. Candidate Obama had his campaign staff and President Obama has his cabinet. Though all of these people have roles to play, it is the president's role set the tone for his administration and to layout policy positions.

President Obama and his 2004 Cabinet
Pivoting to architecture - let's face it, very few people understand what architects do, nor do they appreciate the technical skill and sheer quantity of time required to fully design and document a project. For that reason, many still believe in the stereotypical lone architect slaving away in his ivory tower. In fact, most high profile architects employ a team of professionals. So Bjanke Ingles, for example, has 200 people in his New York office. What Ingles does is to set the tone for the type of work his firm accepts, and works with his designers and architects to edit their work until it aligns with his view of what architecture should be.

Bjarke Ingles and his New York principal architects
Architecture and politics differ is that politics is a democratic process while architecture is more egalitarian. While not everyone can leave their mark on society through the design or construction of architectural works, everyone can vote.  So, no matter who you are or what you do,  go out and cast your ballot on November eighth. And next month we'll resume our exploration of materials.