Shouldn’t it go without saying that the Architect of the Capitol needs to be an architect? But there it is, right in the job description: “Architectural training and licensure a plus.” Not a requirement, mind you. A plus.
The Architect of the Capitol, according to the official government website, is “the builder and steward of the landmark buildings and grounds of Capitol Hill.” The position holder is responsible for a federal agency of the same name, with some 2,000 employees, responsible for 18.4 million square feet of facilities, 570 acres of grounds, thousands of artworks, and, at present, more than a billion dollar backlog.
The job is a 10-year presidential appointment, subject to Senate advice and consent. Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri is leading a 14-member committee drawn from the leadership of both the House and the Senate, which will make recommendations to the president. Executive search firm JDG Associates is managing the process, and AIA is consulting.
The outgoing officeholder, Stephen Ayers, FAIA, announced his resignation last October, having received AIA’s Thomas Jefferson Award for Public Architecture earlier in the year. During his tenure, Ayers oversaw the completion of the Capitol Visitor Center and the repair and restoration of the Capitol Dome and Rotunda, and his sustainability efforts led to a 30 percent reduction in energy consumption on the Hill. Engineer Christine Merdon, Ayers’ chief operating officer, is now acting architect of the Capitol.
How attractive is the job? The broad scope of responsibilities, exemplified by the office’s annual budget of some $740 million, considerably narrows the pool of possible candidates, and the reported salary of $172,500 will likely mean a step down financially for anyone with a suitable background. On top of that, whoever gets the nomination will also have to navigate the highly fractious climate in Washington, D.C.
How did Ayers pursue sustainability and resilience imperatives with politicians still debating whether to acknowledge the scientific reality of climate change? It’s not easy to hold an officially nonpartisan role working amid the most divided body in the land, with one’s every move under scrutiny. In 2017, for instance, Ayers’ office got drawn into a fight over a student contest–winning painting of a pig-like policeman shooting black protesters, inspired by the protests in Ferguson, Mo. A Democratic congressman and the artist sued the Architect of the Capitol for complying with then-Speaker Paul Ryan’s demand to remove the artwork from exhibit in a Capitol hallway.
The hard-headed and hot-tempered need not apply. Not that that should be a problem: Successful architects learn early on how to balance vision and pragmatism, and how to steer prickly clients toward a positive outcome with diplomacy.
Money shouldn’t be an issue either. How many architects do you know who are in it to get rich?
The Architect of the Capitol shouldn’t be an architect simply because it’s the right skill set. That’s obvious. The job should go to an architect because architecture is more than a career. It’s a calling. It’s a lifelong pursuit for individuals who have a passion to serve society, preserve civilization, and build a brighter future. Capitol Hill can always use more people with those qualities.
This article appeared in the March 2019 print issue of ARCHITECT, with the title "The 'Architect' of the Capitol."