Where are the Architect Heroes?

  • 03 May 2013
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  • Articles Editor's Choice
Image of Thomas Jefferson Memorial courtesy of shutterstock.com

This blog was written by Doug Wingall, the President of HDR Architecture, for the AIA Blog Off on the theme “What does architect as leader mean to you?” It was originally published on HDR Architecture‘s blog BLiNK.

Architects and designers are trained in school to be creative and critical thinkers. We are shaped and molded into being the purveyors of ideas that can have a positive influence not only on the built environment, but society in general. By the very skills and talents which architects and designers possess, we are inherent problem solvers.

In fact, one of our country’s greatest politicians, Thomas Jefferson, believed that architecture embodied the soul of his new country–a building was a metaphor for American ideology, the process of construction equal to the task of building a nation.

So why aren’t there more architects and designers working on the national and global stage to solve pressing social, environmental and economic challenges? Currently, lawyers comprise 37 percent of all U.S. senators and nearly 24 percent of all U.S. congressmen. Banking and business occupations account for 20 percent of the Senate and 22 percent of the House. According to the AIA, in the last 50 years, only one architect has served in a national capacity: U.S. Congressman Richard Swett, who represented New Hampshire from 1990 to 1994.

Why aren’t there more architects on a national or global leadership level influencing the policy that ensures positive change?

In his 1968 keynote address to the AIA Convention in Portland, Oregon, Whitney Young, Jr., head of the Urban League at the time, challenged architects on issues relating to social responsibility and diversity within the profession. His words were biting and forceful:

“As a profession, you are not a profession that has distinguished itself by your social and civic contributions to the cause of civil rights, and I am sure this has not come to you as any shock. You are most distinguished by your thunderous silence and your complete irrelevance.”

Most of us have read the dismal statistics regarding the potential brain-drain in the architecture profession as the result of architects leaving, architecture grads pursuing other career paths, and too many high school graduates not even considering architecture as a vocation.  I believe this is in part because the profession of architect has lost its way in mainstream consciousness. We have become less relevant, we have become more commoditized—largely because we are not inserting ourselves into public dialogue as leaders of the discussion and instruments of change. Young people want to enter a profession where they feel they can make a difference, and while architecture certainly is a vehicle to do that, we have fallen off in our determination to execute it properly.

Forty-five years after Young addressed that homogenous AIA audience, perhaps the profession is better poised to embrace his advice:

“It took a great deal of skill and creativity and imagination to build the kind of situation we have, and it is going to take skill and imagination and creativity to change it. We are going to have to have people as committed to doing the right thing, to inclusiveness, as we have in the past to exclusiveness.”

I wonder about the concept of architect as political hero. I believe that if we don’t go forward with that idea in mind, then we will never fulfill our true potential, that our profession will languish in obscurity. As architects, we are the builders of dreams. I propose that we can and should build dreams beyond the tangible world of the built environment. We have much to contribute to the shaping of public policy that can improve the world. And I argue that there has never been a better time for us to begin.

Doug Wignall is president of HDR Architecture, Inc. He started with the company as an architectural intern more than 20 years ago, and says he still comes to work every day inspired by HDR’s ability to change lives through the power of design. On the personal front, Doug is a foodie and diehard Yankees fan. Follow Doug on Twitter at @DougWignall.

Image of Thomas Jefferson Memorial via shutterstock.com 

Cite: Doug Wignall. "Where are the Architect Heroes?" 03 May 2013. ArchDaily. Accessed 25 May 2015. <http://www.archdaily.com/?p=364874>
  • bobo

    …as my current client has reiterated, despite numerous offers to find a more ‘service oriented’ design team for the project: ‘he who has the gold makes the rules’… Has authorship supplanted excellence…? Can we thank the legal profession in the end ?

  • Beebles

    Cannot agree more that we are a profession needing more of a presence in the political and public realm considering our unique abilities in problem solving. Often thought the same thing. However, can it also be said that American architects are to blame for the lack of their own inclusiveness in these realms? American architecture schools dismiss most of what America offers because of taste. We appreciate globalism more than nationalism. We do not like Frank Lloyd Wright, we like Corbusier. We love the Norwegian landscape but not American landscape. We champion this idea of elitism which keeps us in the distance from the general public who has little understanding of what we do in this profession. The difference between lawyers and architects: when necessary, you know when you need a lawyer – you can’t say the same for an architect because most people think we do something completely different than what we actually do.

  • lks

    “Why aren’t there more architects on a national or global leadership level influencing the policy that ensures positive change?”

    … maybe because running for public office requires a large amount of money?

  • Laszlo Kovacs

    architects want to build buildings, not run for office…

  • Are we architects, or are we not?

    We are mere make-up artists, and fashion designers, artisans for the rich. We draw and thats about it, major ideas, are nothing but major dreams, which any person of any profession has. We are mediocre skilled in management, and mediocre skilled in marketing as well as selling. ‘Architect’ is just an overly-pompous title we give ourselves to nourish our vanity. That genuine field of expertise which name we hijacked has shifted to the developers, the ‘arch – tectons’ or supreme builders of today, and they are more than present in the society, they mould it to their own vision, driven by their own agenda. A beautician, what a contemporary ‘architect’ is, will never be asked for a professional opinion, since his opinion is mostly based on daydreaming rather than, by socio-economics driven, reality. ‘Architects’ that become aware of that, rise a tier, becoming developers, taking the reins in their own hands, therefore fully acknowledging the already given title, of supreme builder.

    • Antoine Daher

      “”"”Architect’ is just an overly-pompous title we give ourselves to nourish our vanity”"”"”
      i love what you wrote ,YOU HAD THE FINAL NAIL IN THAT COFIN.
      Would like to add one more contradiction to what you are saying ,have you ever though about it the other way around .
      As in the Supreme builder becoming an overly pompius wanna be architect ?

      A Disaster

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  • Josh

    Frankly, I believe architects should not get into politics because the type of architect who gets into politics is the type of architect who believes politics will solve today’s problems. Much worse than merely misguided, these architects are also democrats.

  • Ambassador (ret.) Richard N. Swett, FAIA

    For those of you not wishing to get into the rough and tumble business of politics, let me remind you, this is not a question of running for political office. It is a question of leadership in the public realm. (Or, as I used to say as a Congressman, “Don’t aspire to public office, aspire to public service.” If you read my book, “Leadership by Design: Creating an Architecture of Trust” you will discover great architects who were great leaders, like Frederick Law Olmstead or Cass Gilbert. Unfortunately, they lived over a century ago.

    What we need are great leaders in our profession who are concerned about the design of our society, not just the buildings. I am working on creating a software platform that will help in this regard by modeling the architecture, engineering, energy use, environmental impact, and operational efficiency in the computer before it is built in reality, just like jets are built. We can do a better job than what we are currently doing. I look forward to working with the young, new leaders of the profession to realize a better role for architects in a better world. If you wish to see more, go to my web site: http://www.climateprosperitysolutions.com.

  • Tom Traubert

    Great thoughts…I hate to bring it up but doesn’t HDR design prisons? Ceasing contributing to the prison/industrial complex would be a good place to start if one wanted to effect positive change in our society.

  • richard

    I think we are well past, having learn its ‘limits’, the Jeffersonian (pre-modern) and modernist view of architecture-that it could be an instrument for monumental change. While the argument is posited with admirable sentiment, perhaps it is also sentimental?