Design Diplomacy: Architecture's Relationship with Public Policy

September 30, 2000 · by Richard Swett, FAIA

By expanding “design” from its aesthetic sense to incorporate people, society and quality of life issues, we shift the paradigm of architecture from the design of buildings to influencing the “design” process for solving problems in society.

Upon my arrival in Denmark as the U.S. Ambassador two years ago, I quickly came to appreciate the Danish ideal evident in this country’s long-standing mix of good architecture, design and public policy. For nearly a decade prior to my posting here I have sought to build a bridge between architecture and public policy in the United States. My first impression of Denmark made me believe that I had finally come to a country where the bridge was already standing.

As only the thirteenth architect to serve in the United States Congress and the only one of the twentieth century, I came to Denmark believing that the influence of design on public policy had been cultivated through the successful engagement of architects in the public arena. I quickly inquired about the long list of architects serving as elected public officials and was surprised to find that the profession is just as reticent about running for public office here as it is in the United States. However, here there is much more influence exerted by the profession through other means. Relationships between government officials and designers are more prevalent. The profession has, in the past, taken specific stands on social policy that have influenced legislative policy makers. Still, little is known about the relationship between design and public policy.

The interplay of public policy and architecture needs to be examined in order to gain a better understanding of the dynamics of a successful society. The inherent connection between design and public policy is rarely discussed, if at all.

I have been very privileged to wear many hats during my career as an architect and public servant. My architectural training has served me well throughout my working life. In private practice, it has enhanced and informed my abilities to provide constructive service to my clients and constituents, beginning with non-governmental organizations and citizens’ groups. The practice of architecture continues to enhance and inform my career, where I have served the public as Congressman from New Hampshire and now as I serve my nation as Ambassador to Denmark. As a matter of fact, architecture played a role in my public service career right from the start. My first congressional campaign slogan was, “Every House needs a good architect.”

Throughout, I have witnessed and participated in the maze of complex systems, governmental regulations, professional disciplines, special interest groups, grass-roots community organizations and big businesses, all seeking to impact our “built environment.” I have found that there are few people well equipped to sort through the cacophony of competitive interests in a constructive way that ultimately achieves harmony. By virtue of our training, skills and perspective, architects should play that role, but, sadly, we rarely do.

From this morass of conflict, architects are expected to create sound structures of lasting value; works of art, if you will. These forms we create are more than art, however. They must function as protective machines providing order and place while they elevate the human condition, both spiritually and literally. And, as you all know, this is easier, much easier, said than done. But that IS what we architects are committed to do-it is the central mission of our profession.

Daunting as this architectural mission is, the truth is that in today’s world it is no longer enough. We must be prepared to do more. Because of our singular focus on aesthetic design without regard to social design, because we have turned our noses up at the more “mundane” or administrative aspects of our profession, and because we have narrowed our leadership responsibilities to avoid liability rather than expand them to gain influence, we have seen our roles as leading visionaries in society follow a diminishing path. It is time to change our perspective.

The title of this article, “Design Diplomacy: Public Policy and the Practice of Architecture,” may have intrigued and even confused many of you.But let me explain what I mean by “Design Diplomacy.” By expanding “design” from its limited aesthetic sense and broadening it to incorporate people, society and quality of life issues, we shift the traditional paradigm of architecture from the design of buildings to influencing the “design” process for solving problems in society (or public policy formation). The creative process of architects is a constructive, inclusive process—therefore more diplomatic than the aggressive and adversarial methods of engagement in politics. Hence, “Design Diplomacy: Public Policy and the Practice of Architecture.” Architects are essential contributors, even the actual shapers, of the environment in which we live. Yet they have always seemed to be supporting actors at best or bit players at worst, in the various dramas unfolding on society’s main stage. It is time to take a fresh look at our profession and the role it plays in today’s world. So it seems logical to start off with a new definition and an outline of a few key topics and terms:

1. The “Global Village” & “Globalization”
2. The “New Economy”
3. Knowledge Management & High Technology
4. Management of the Environment & Energy Resources
5. Accountability and Responsibility to the Local Community
6. LEADERSHIP

Perhaps not all of these topics seem, at first blush, to interface with the world of architecture and design, but they most certainly should.

“The Global Village” and its recently coined noun, “Globalization,” has become a common catch phrase. But it fails to capture an inevitable but very unpredictable development of our global community: the creation of community infrastructure. Examples can be found all around us. Witness the Öresund Bridge in Copenhagen. The engineering feat of a sixteen-mile span of suspension bridge and tunnel is changing much more than the cultural and commercial lives in this city and Malmö across the sound in Sweden. This is the final piece of the transportation network that connects all of Europe. Now it is possible to truck goods and raw materials across all of Europe, all the way to the remotest parts of Northern and Eastern Europe and the vast terrain of the former Soviet Union. This bridge physically links the developed world with remote societies largely detached from the technology and prosperity we so often take for granted.

This brings me to the “New Economy.” What does this sound-bite mean, especially for architects? As old paradigms are shifting, being redefined or being demolished altogether, how do we as a profession adapt? How do we remain in command of our established role while modern society is morphing around us? The traditional chain of command, where information is passed down in smaller and smaller increments, has been turned on its head. Now huge amounts of data are collected and transferred to the small group of decision-makers at the top. Already now, and more so in the near future, vast numbers of individuals will have access to information on choices in life no longer limited by their immediate, physical surroundings. These are opportunities created by this new surge of information. They will no longer have to travel in order to work, to shop or to educate themselves. We will have more and more of the planet’s economies vesting greater and greater resources into the development and expansion of global intellectual property. Where does the architect figure in this?

One example I can give where architects have already begun to play a role in helping to create the “New Economy” is the United States’ Intermodal Surface Transportation Act of 1992. Originally known as the “Highway Bill,” architects fought hard to expand the requirements of this legislation to do more than provide highway engineering and construction. Issues of sustainability and the creation of livable communities through social design were addressed. Architects and planners were made a part of the process so that “best use scenarios” would be examined prior to the creation of a new highway. Interconnections between transportation systems, or “intermodal points” enhanced the use of rail, air and sea transportation networks in conjunction with the highways-not separate from them.

Let me quote a passage from Understanding Media: The Extensions of Mankind published nearly 40 years ago by Marshall McLuhan:

“To reward and to make celebrities of artists can...be a way of ignoring their prophetic work, and preventing its timely use for survival. The artist is any man in any field, scientific or humanistic, who grasps the implications of his actions and of the new knowledge in his own time. He is the man of integral awareness. The artist can correct the sense ratios before the blow of new technology has numbed conscious procedures. He can correct them before numbness and subliminal groping and reaction sets in. If this is true, how is it possible to present the matter to those who are in the position to do something about it?”

Good Question! Obviously, before an answer can be formulated, the architectural profession must first take stock. The issue of knowledge management is broad and critical. How do we manage our knowledge? How do we employ high technology? How do we apply this ever-increasing body of knowledge to the task at hand? How do we communicate amongst ourselves? How do we communicate to the public at large, beyond the physical reality of the buildings we construct? How can we match our skills and demonstrate our value to society as effectively as those youngsters, the I.T. whiz-kids, who are now the highest paid professionals (many of whom are leaving our profession), cutting across all levels of socio-economic and cultural barriers?

Perhaps the answer lies in our accountability and responsibility to our communities. Not just to the international community of architects, but to those in our home communities. This is an area unconsidered and under-valued by our profession. But of course, we are not alone in this. We stand to learn a great deal from our colleagues in public service on this account.

The profession of Politics has a negative reputation in the public’s mind thanks to the glaring mistakes of some of its high-flyers. And so too does architecture when it becomes party to grave political misconceptions. To drop some infamous examples I offer Albert Speer’s Berlin or Brasilia, the utopian capital gone monumentally wrong. These are the worst-case scenarios realized out of grandiose political schemes met with equal fervor by like-minded architects.

Examples of integrated artistic, social and environmental harmony created by architects who have served both their calling and the needs of society are harder to recall. They are not glamorous like the skyscrapers of corporate power nor are they the permanent reminders of empire building like the Roman Coliseum or the Great Wall of China. Pierre l’Enfant’s well-designed new capital of the United States, Washington, D.C. survives as an evolving example of a good base for comprehensive city planning. Even Strøget (or The Walking Street) of Copenhagen or the urban garden of Tivoli can be considered successfully harmonic examples.

But what we can see here in Denmark are design ideals played out on broader and better, more integrated levels that transcend the traditional “top-down” approach. In the design of managed communities for senior citizens, in the day-care centers for Danish children, in the sensitively-restored period architecture and in the planned post-war suburban communities integrated into the rolling hills of the Danish landscape, Denmark provides a stellar example of a truly integrated and societal approach to architecture and public policy. Danish architects are as famous for their buildings of international acclaim as they are for their dining room chairs and their desk lamps. No design task is too small or inconsequential. All aspects of the design of a civilized life’s accouterments, from the shelter we need to the implements for feeding ourselves, are treated with the same high standards of design integrity and respect.

The awareness of architecture’s role in managing our precious natural resources and the responsibility to design the built environment with efficient energy use and conservation in mind are now universal. But making it a social, political and economic priority has led to a world-class role for the Danish industrial and architectural design community. The architects of the world should take note.

This holistic approach forms the bedrock of a subtle, sustained leadership. It means taking many, many things into consideration. It involves combining the complex relationships architects must achieve to create their work while constructing purposeful physical structures with an inherent use of our environment.

We are in an increasingly interdependent world in which not only commerce, but also professions and national interests overlap more and more. Despite occasional adversarial conflict in the arenas of trade, politics and special interest groups, it is interesting to note that architects remain one of the few academic professions still held in high regard by the public. Yet, the profession is losing market share. I would even go so far as to say it is losing touch with the environment, in which we not only live, but also are so integral in creating and managing.

This interplay between the practice of architecture and public policy is at the crux of these questions. Architects have not adequately participated in the public policy debate in a way that I wholeheartedly believe would be so beneficial to our profession and to the public at large.

By our very nature, architects are constructive, cooperative and creative problem solvers and as such, have splendid leadership qualities to offer. Likewise, public policy can only evolve and mature if architects better use their integrated creative skills to have a greater say in local, national and even international governmental affairs. I am not criticizing or downplaying the accomplishments of the profession in the public arena. Nor do I wish to diminish the very important role of design in our profession. I only suggest that architecture is made up of much more than just the aesthetics of design, and that we must consider a broader set of issues and set new objectives for participation in public life. Five years ago Herbert Muschamp wrote for The New York Times, a “Fleeting Homage to an Architect Who only Dreams:”

“The realization of an architectural design isn’t purely a technical matter. It also has a cultural dimension....I’m thinking, for example, of an artist like Christo, who regards the process of realizing as an essential part of his art. When Christo wraps up a monument, like the Berlin Reichstag building, the project’s meaning is partly drawn from the involvement of public officials and private citizens in its creation. Architects draw on that level of meaning as a matter of a course. It is not only the public use of buildings that makes architecture a social art, it is also the architect’s engagement with clients, communities, contractors and others whose participation is required to alter the material world. If architects can fully gratify their creativity on paper, they are squandering the opportunity they have to activate the creativity of others.”

We could only benefit by the effort of participation in public life and through it the activation of the creativity of the public.

Thomas Jefferson, an architect of great skill and sensitivity and an unparalleled politician, played a pivotal role in designing the blueprint of the American democratic system. In doing so, he effectively realized the confluence of the arts, democratic politics and morality. In a letter to James Madison written in 1785, he wrote,

“I am enthusiastic on the subject of the arts. But it is an enthusiasm of which I am not ashamed, as its object is to improve the taste of my countrymen, to increase their reputation, to reconcile them to the rest of the world, and to procure them praise.”

There are great opportunities, as so nobly expressed by Jefferson, for our profession to seize. How many architects hold senior government positions charged with Housing and Urban Affairs, Culture, Transportation and Environmental Management? How many architects are politically active and practically involved in their local and national governments?

Buildings have been designed and built, but beyond that, what is the legacy of leadership that architects have left for societies? Will gated communities cut off from their neighbors be the future? Will glass and marble towers be gracefully integrated into their surroundings or alienate themselves from the very blocks on which they are located? The fact is too many architects are seriously marginalized, and I would go so far as to say, intentionally isolated, from the political process that determines the zoning, funding and the complex social and legal regulations that control the building of our shared environment. This subject needs to be confronted, debated and discussed in detail.

Yet, we need to do more. Well-known Austrian architect Hans Hollein, when recently asked, “Do you ever wish you had been only a fine artist?” responded,

“I would have a much more comfortable life just sitting in a studio in the country. But I wanted to be involved in building in the city; I wanted to contribute to daily life with all its idiosyncrasies and difficulties.”

During the recent conference, we concluded by assisting in the design of a blueprint that will frame the future influence of our profession beyond the limitations of bricks and mortar. Such a plan suggests that our fellow architects take up leadership roles in order to balance the tectonic, economic and political aspects of city/state planning more consciously.

Thomas Jefferson also wrote in 1785:
“I am proud to be an architect and don’t propose we go out and tear down any buildings. I do propose, however, we tear down some of the myths and misperceptions that architects have about public policy and vice versa.”

And that, my colleagues, is what we are here to do. Together, we can build a better future. Let’s start now.

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