There is no such thing as a sole endeavor. Everything is a joint venture. That was the essence of author David McCullough’s introduction to his keynote speech at the AIA Convention and Design Exposition in Washington, D.C., this morning. Even America, he said. And even Congress … when it works correctly. This, not surprisingly, was his first round of applause and laughter as the renowned author of 1776 (2005), The Great Bridge (2001), and his latest book The Greater Journey (2012), eased into his talk for the thousands of gathered AIA members in the grand ballroom at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center.
Stories of the Brooklyn Bridge followed, and how that enormous, and beautiful, engineering and construction project has not only lasted through the years, but is as necessary, cherished, and beloved as ever. This led to the story of Washington’s leading of the revolutionary army across the East River after the disastrous loss at the Battle of Brooklyn, and how weather conditions and timing had to be, and were, perfect to enable such a lucky escape for our future first president and the fate of the colonies.
And as one story leads to another, he then launched into the topic of his latest work, The Greater Journey, about the travels—almost pilgrimage—of Americans to France in the 19th century. It was the French, he reminded the audience, who were essential to our country’s winning of its independence, and ever since, the two countries’ histories have been inextricably linked. Not to mention that one of the greatest masterpieces in our nation’s canon, the Statue of Liberty, was a gift from that nation. And, more importantly, that more of our soldiers are buried in France, as a result of the two world wars, than in any other place other than here at home. In the 19th century, Americans with money and time took the one-to-three-month trip eastward across the Atlantic to study art, medicine, philosophy, and architecture. (There were no architecture schools in the United States at the time.)
Upon reaching land on the north coast of France, travelers would head up the Seine towards Paris. The first building that they would have seen in months was the Rouen Cathedral. It was larger than anything any of these Americans had seen in their lives, than even the original Capitol dome. It was made entirely of stone, which was an extreme rarity for buildings in the United States at the time. And it was older than anything they had ever seen. Needless to say, they were enthralled—regardless of their own religious identity. It was the power and beauty of the building itself that reenergized them for the final leg of their trip and prepared them for the city that awaited them.
In his concluding words, McCullough told the audience a story of sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, and how the beauty of the city of Paris saved the troubled artist’s life. Paris lacked any natural features that would have made it stunning; it was built environment that was the beauty and power of Paris. One time, during a bout of depression, Saint-Gaudens ran out of his house intending to take his own life. He was stopped from his deadly mission by the city itself, with the sun rising and casting the architecture of Paris into a beauty and a glow that made him realize that he wanted to continue to live.
Earlier in the session, 2012 AIA President Jeff Potter, FAIA, opened the morning’s ceremonies and introduced a few speakers leading up to McCullough’s keynote.
Architect of the Capitol Stephen Ayers, FAIA, welcomed the crowd to the nation’s capital with a short speech about how much the city has changed in the past couple of decades and the what the city’s potential is going forward.
Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) gave a brief address to the crowd about the need for architects to be more involved in the legislative workings of our federal government. If the NRA can be a force on the hill, asked Blumenauer, why not the people who are in charge of designing all of the places we live and work in each day?
D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray argued for the image of his city as not only a repository for great historical architecture, but also as an incubation space for innovative architecture and placemaking for the future. He pointed out that D.C. has the most LEED-certified square footage per capita of any state in the nation, and is third in the number of LEED-certified buildings of any city, behind only Chicago and New York. (The District is behind the Big Apple by only one building, the mayor made a point of saying.) He ended his allotted time with a rousing call for representation in Congress for the people of the capital, and a liberation from the cumbersome need to ask Congress for approval of local laws and regulations.
Also, George Baird, Intl. Assoc. AIA, was awarded the Topaz Medallion for Excellence in Architectural Education, given each year to an educator who has been influential in architectural education and has reached and influenced a large number of architecture students. Baird, as he said, grew up near Toronto, and went to the only architecture school in his region, the University of Toronto. After graduation, he left for London, at the height of the counterculture movement there in the ’60s. He then moved back to teach at the University of Toronto’s school of architecture, only leaving to go to the Harvard Graduate School of Design. He returned to Toronto as the dean of the John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design (2004–2009).
Note: The original version of this story misspelled the name of Rep. Earl Blumenauer. We regret the error.