A team led by Adam Yarinsky, AIA, of New York–based Architecture Research Office (ARO); Syracuse University architecture dean Mark Robbins, AIA; and HR&A partner James Lima is currently exploring strategies that, as requested by the RFP, “enhance the GSA’s commitment to design excellence, and inform the NEA’s investments in good design, livable communities, and creative place-making.” The RFP’s overall aim is to “inculcate an ethic of quality design across federal agencies in such areas as urban design, landscape architecture, graphic design, and in public spaces generally.”
Asked how he envisions the final form or result of the study, Jason Schupbach, the NEA’s director of design, says, “We can’t have any preconceived notions. Certainly we are looking at other [nations’] approaches, but whatever we come up with has to work within the United States and the system we have.”
The current inquiry has roots in a series of discussions that Yarinsky and engineer Guy Nordenson organized in 2008, debating issues about infrastructure, sustainability, and climate control. This led to their proposal for the formation of a sort of federal design commission that would assist federal agencies and recipients of federal funding to ensure a rigorous design review and procurement process. At that moment, Congress was just about to approve the $789 billion stimulus package, which promised to fund major infrastructure projects, so the timing seemed right.
“Many of the issues that he and I were interested in—such as linking infrastructure planning, transportation, and urban livability to development—are definitely part of our thinking,” says Yarinsky, whose team will complete its study this spring.
“In the federal government, there is a recognition that decision-making is interrelated—for example, what HUD [U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development] or DOT [U.S. Department of Transportation] are doing overlaps and there’s an understanding of the need for everyone to talk to each other,” says Robbins. “So one thing we are considering is how to enhance communications among the agencies.” Several agencies already have a comfortable history of collaborating on design issues; for example, the State Department is looking to the GSA for guidance on its own design excellence program for overseas constructions.
The complexity of the government’s structure and division of responsibilities is just one of the many obstacles that any sort of unified position or strategy would face. The U.S. is hardly as compact as Norway (population 5 million) or even France (population 62 million), and the notion of tax dollars supporting something explicitly regarded as “cultural” is regarded with suspicion by many officials on Capitol Hill. Never mind the fact that architecture and design are not merely artistic or cultural pursuits.
In the U.S., “culture” in the most general sense tends to get polarized and politicized in a way that is inconceivable in Europe, where citizens expect their governments to subsidize public amenities, including the arts. “The political or ideological question never comes up,” says French architectural historian Jean-Louis Cohen, explaining that there is little risk that France’s architecture programs will be defunded even during the most conservative political cycles. “They have proven to provide tangible benefits to the built environment, the efficiency of development, and French culture.”
Owing to the efforts of FEPA and other forums, such as regular assemblies among the world’s ministers of culture, many other countries, and certainly the remaining members of the European Union, are on the path toward adopting official architecture policies, convinced of the long-term economic and social payoff of promoting architecture and all it encompasses—buildings, infrastructure, public space, neighborhoods, towns. The U.S. lacks a cabinet-level body or federal-agency equivalent to the culture ministries of its European counterparts, but even among those forward-looking nations that have adopted top-down architecture policies, there have been setbacks.
The near-death experience of the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE), the adviser to the British government on architecture, urban design, and public space, might be seen as a cautionary tale for nations adopting new architecture policies. Long held up as a role model for its good work—since 1999, it has conducted thousands of independent design reviews which have influenced authorities and the fate of a good many developments—it nonetheless lost all of its parliamentary funding in October 2010 as a result of the budget crisis.
A last-minute merger with the Design Council saved CABE, though its staff and functions have been severely cut back. Interestingly, the Design Council’s federal funding was spared, perhaps due to its affiliation with the Department of Business and thus the causes of industry and manufacturing. (CABE’s support came primarily from the Department of Culture.) Going forward, both will become full-time charities, relying more on commercial sources of income, such as fee-based consultation, a service CABE has performed for some years for the 2012 Olympic committee or the national rail authority, for example. In retrospect, CABE director Paul Finch says that other funding models, such as taxes on new constructions—like the taxes that sustain France’s CAUE—would have entrenched the organization more deeply within the government system.
At the heart of the matter is the value placed on the long term versus the short term. In order for the U.S. to remain vibrant and competitive—as President Barack Obama cited as key to the nation’s recovery during his State of the Union address earlier this year—it is clear which view is the wiser. High-speed rail, sustainability, and clean energy, for example, represent sound long-term investments for the country (and planet).
A well-conceived, comprehensive architecture policy could work toward combating the myopic politics that consistently stall such efforts by providing a valuable rubric to link these concerns to one another and to issues periphery to design—especially economic issues such as job creation, expanding exports, or improving national health, just to name a few examples.
Though the likelihood of a national architecture policy for the U.S. may appear inextricably bound to partisan electoral outcomes, no political party owns design—just as no party owns the issues that affect design and are affected in turn by design. “Excellence in design is integral to the federal government’s responsible stewardship of public resources. … It should not be viewed as a luxury added on at extra cost but as a process for increasing the efficiency and quality of our lives. Our ability to compete effectively in international markets depends largely on an often overlooked, but integral element—design quality.” That was not a European culture czar, but rather late President Ronald Reagan, speaking during his presentation of the Presidential Design Awards in 1987.
“Money is getting spent either way, so one would hope that each gesture have as many potential outcomes as possible,” says Robbins. “If we can come up with something that demonstrates the value of design, not as some kind of post-facto mass or decoration but as fundamental to rethinking our environments and the way we live, that would be incredible. The challenge is to show how the strength of our design disciplines can work towards making all the other parts of our culture better, more efficient and successful.”