To the right of the front lobby desk, visitors to the AIA’s Washington, D.C., headquarters encounter what is arguably the building’s single most outstanding design feature: the granite wall on which the names of the AIA’s Gold Medal recipients are carved. Midway down the list is the name of this nation’s third president, Thomas Jefferson.
Jefferson was a man of great ideas, among which was the connection he saw between public architecture and the ideals of a new nation. Although a staunch advocate of small government, he passionately believed that the civic institutions of the republic—its courthouses, legislative halls, custom houses, and libraries—should be models not of mediocrity but of excellence.
When, for example, Jefferson cast about for a model for Virginia’s new Capitol in Richmond, he chose the Maison Carrée not because it was cheap to build but because, to him, its chaste lines and noble proportions, transplanted to the brow of a hill overlooking the James River, would both reflect and shape the highest aspirations of the commonwealth’s civic discourse. It would be a model—both at home and abroad—of this nation’s values and ideals.
As a student of the classics, Jefferson was also in touch with another idea, one as old as as Rome itself: that the investment in public architecture had the potential to orchestrate the pattern of community development according to the genius of a particular site. Although a certain style might prevail—Palladian in the case of Jefferson—style could be and was adapted in ways that communicated a common vocabulary of national ideals while contributing to a unique and nurturing sense of place.
At a time when public officials at all levels of government are looking for ways to cut budgets, architects should not be wringing their hands, fearing a dramatic decline in the quality of public architecture a foregone conclusion. Instead, whether through informed advocacy or initiatives such as the General Services Administration’s commitment to sustainability, we should—and the AIA will—help elected officials understand this powerful truth: Design is their greatest resource. Investing in it is money well spent and the basis of vibrant and sustainable communities.
Citing the example of Jefferson is a good place to begin.
Clark D. Manus, FAIA, 2011 President