Everyone has ideas about how the federal government should structure and spend the $825 billion (or so) in President Barack Obama's American Recovery and Reinvestment Plan. As of late January, when this issue of ARCHITECT was going to press, the plan was going through the old Beltway push-and-pull between Republicans and Democrats, Capitol Hill and the White House. Nonetheless, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi was claiming with confidence that the enacting legislation would be passed by the next congressional recess, on Feb. 16—Presidents Day, appropriately.
So as you're reading this, assuming all has gone well in Washington, D.C. (for once), the nation will be tasting the first fruits of a New Deal for the 21st century. Heaven knows we need it—and by "we," I mean America and the architecture profession. The hike that the plan will cause in the national deficit is frightening, but even scarier is the prospect of enduring the current economic crisis without tax breaks and an influx of government spending. The layoffs have begun in earnest, as ARCHITECT's Amanda Kolson Hurley reports in "Available: Immediately," and nobody but the federal government is in a position right now to get architects working again. The big questions that remain in my mind are (1) how, exactly, should we spend all that money; and (2) who will coin the catchiest brand name for the president's plan, one as resonant as the New Deal or Lyndon Johnson's the Great Society?
I'll leave the naming to the experts, but I have thoughts on what to do with the dough. In brief, we should spend it on string. By "string," I don't mean the stuff used to tie up brown-paper packages, I mean that every construction-related initiative should come with incentives and proscriptions that tie developers, local governments, and other major stakeholders to a new way of building. By "building," I don't just mean the fabrication of individual structures, I mean the composition of the entire built environment of the United States.
Had enough of the qualifiers? Pity. The fine print is everything when the stakes are as high as they are now. For instance, one dangerous assumption that many pundits and wonks are making about the stimulus plan is that only "shovel-ready" projects are worthy of federal investment—the idea being that cash will hit the economy faster by skipping over initiatives that require planning and design, and thus skipping over architecture in the process.
Not so fast. The AIA provides a great counterargument in its position paper on the plan (available at aia.org/rebuildandrenew): "A 2004 AIA survey of architecture firms determined that the average time between award of a design contract and the award of a construction contract for that facility was about one year, but less than six months for 40 percent of the projects. Therefore, providing funding for projects in the design phase will not prevent construction contracts from being awarded within the timeframe of the economic recovery package [emphasis in the original]. But it will allow for a broader and better designed set of projects." Amen to that.
Next time you run into AIA executive vice president and CEO Christine McEntee, give her a handshake, a high-five, or a hug (depending on your personal style and degree of familiarity with her), because the institute couldn't be more on the money here. If the AIA lobbies effectively, and developers and local governments get the proper inducements, architects will have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to rework the relationship between the built and natural environments and undo decades of damage. An impossible task? Remember, the interstate highway system didn't exist until 1956, when Dwight Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act. It takes just one act of Congress to transform a nation.
While planning for an Obama-style world, the profession shouldn't limit itself to shiny new high-performance buildings with double-skinned curtain walls, green roofs, and wind turbines, though hopefully lots of them will get built. It's just as exciting, really, to imagine cities like Detroit and St. Louis—not in their current incarnations, but as the starting points for a reinvented urbanism, in which shamefully underutilized downtown buildings and infrastructure are restored to service, sprawl is upgraded for maximum post-oil utility, metro areas are linked by high-speed rail, and greenfield development is verboten. Think of our built environment as one big recycling project.
Realizing a vision of that scope calls for a great deal of energy, and no small amount of restraint. At the inauguration, President Obama urged Americans to "set aside childish things." His admonition applies to architects as well. The time has come to embrace the pragmatist within. As of Jan. 20, the profession's internecine debates about style and obsessions with digitally derived fashion statements became passé, mere fluff of architecture's Paris Hilton era. After all, the great value of 3-D modeling is not radical form but extreme efficiency. Those who disagree should simply try once to design with a building's performance and a city's livability in mind. Form will follow.