Fourteen million Americans have a problem. That includes thousands upon thousands of architects. What’s the problem? No jobs. The Great Recession may be officially over, but the hangover just won’t go away.
It’s not like the country has run out of options. Wonks and politicians to the right, the left, and the center say that vital infrastructure improvement is a surefire way to get more Americans on the payrolls, reboot the economy, and invest in the future. Conveniently, infrastructure-making happens to be a big part of architecture’s skill set.
When the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (aka the stimulus) was in the works in the winter of 2008–2009, I heard a lot of architects wish out loud that the legislation would result in a 21st-century Works Progress Administration, or WPA—a federal program that engaged millions of citizens during the Great Depression in the creation of public buildings and other forms of infrastructure.
New York magazine published an article in late 2008 speculating about the possibilities of a latter-day WPA: a Santiago Calatrava–designed bridge across the Hudson River, for instance. (No offense to Calatrava, but he was an unfortunate suggestion; under the circumstances, such jobs should go to Americans.) The vision of beautiful public works taking shape across the country seemed to have broad, if not universal, appeal during the hope-and-change frenzy of the last election cycle.
Communities throughout the United States can point with pride to fine, enduring examples of New Deal architecture: theaters, libraries, parks, athletic facilites. My hometown, St. Louis, boasts the suitably named Jewel Box, an Art Deco conservatory that remains a popular venue for weddings. So where are the landmarks of the 2009 stimulus? Was our $787 billion investment worthwhile?
Most of the stimulus funds—$512 billion—were devoted to tax breaks and to entitlement programs such as Medicaid, not to programs designed for direct job creation. The leftover money—$275 billion—went to a bundle of contracts, grants, and loans that did include capital projects of benefit to architects. But even that $275 billion slice of the pie wasn’t dedicated strictly to construction; it included $81 billion for education, $13 billion for health, $4 billion for job training, and so forth. The final, much-reduced figure, along with delays inherent in getting construction projects through the approvals process, means that the stimulus had far less potential to get architects working again than the whopping overall number suggested.
Some economists argue that the 2009 stimulus program should have gone further, and that another is necessary. But austerity, not stimulus, has been the focus of recent economic debates in Congress. A balanced budget and manageable debt load are without question essential to the nation’s long-term economic well-being. Bill Clinton admitted as much in a June 19 Newsweek article, “It’s Still the Economy, Stupid”—though he believes that we should wait to make deep cuts until the economy stabilizes.
Clinton was the last U.S. president to deliver a budget surplus: four years in a row, to be precise, for the duration of his entire second term. So when he offers advice about the economy, it pays to at least listen. The subtitle of his Newsweek article is “14 Ways to Put America Back to Work.” Five of those ideas are tailored specifically to the design and construction industries, and several more would be of indirect but consequential benefit to architects and to the built environment.
Number one on Clinton’s list is “Speed the Approvals,” a suggestion to eliminate red tape for most government construction projects (except those of extreme environmental concern). “Harry Hopkins [the ‘architect’ of the New Deal] had nowhere near the rules and regulations we have now,” Clinton observes.
Idea four is “Copy the Empire State Building,” not in the sense of erecting new faux-Deco skyscrapers, but in the sense of replicating the tower’s 2010 energy-efficient retrofit in buildings around the country.
Idea five identifies how to pay for retrofits, namely by engaging the utilities. “You wouldn’t even need banks if states required the electric companies to let consumers finance this work through utility savings,” Clinton writes. “At least 11 states [already] allow the electric companies to collect the money saved and use it to pay the contractors.”
Idea seven would encourage the banks to start lending again, by setting aside $15 billion to guarantee $150 billion in loans. “We should start with buildings we know will stay in use: most state and local government buildings, schools, university structures, hospitals, theaters, and concert halls,” Clinton suggests. “We could include private commercial buildings with no debt.”
Idea eight would employ low-skill labor and young people right out of school in applying coats of white paint to flat, black-tar roofs. The straightforward effort would lower utility bills, save energy, and reduce the urban heat island effect. New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg already has such a project up and running.
The doom-and-gloom scenario being played out in the media can’t undermine the fact that the U.S. economy, even in its enfeebled state, is the largest in the world—more than double the size of China’s. We have the means. If we use them wisely, we can transform our country for the better and create jobs for millions of out-of-work Americans. Now that’s my idea of progress.