January 2009

Inklings of promise from the new administration are shining out from the torrent of dire economic news. If you feel overwhelmed, listen up: “I still really admire architects, and I love looking at buildings.” Although proverbial music to our ears, that direct quote might seem innocuous, even simplistic, if it were not for the speaker—the future President of the United States. Barack Obama, responding in an interview with Barbara Walters on ABC television, declared his admiration for the built environment and his concern for energy usage, positions that have been amplified not only in words but actions.

Photo © André Souroujon

On Saturday, December 13, the President-elect announced that Shaun Donovan, the 42-year-old commissioner of housing preservation and development in New York City, will be appointed the nation’s Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. Again, the President-elect speaks: “Trained as an architect, Shaun understands housing down to how homes are designed, built, and wired,” he said.

An architect with a cabinet-level position! According to his official biography, Donovan received both a B.A. in engineering and a master’s in public administration and architecture from Harvard, and he has worked as an architect. In his New York City position since March 2004, Donovan has been responsible for the largest housing plan in the country, the $7.5 billion, 165,000-unit New Housing Marketplace plan, which will provide affordable housing for 500,000 people. His previous experience includes work with affordable housing in the private sector, teaching at N.Y.U., and until 2001, serving as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Multifamily Housing at HUD during the Clinton administration.

While having a savvy, accomplished architect in the housing role offers no guarantee that we can solve the nation’s housing dilemma, with its obvious challenges of mounting foreclosures and squeezed credit affecting so many Americans, a cabinet-level position places a professional colleague within the president’s hearing on issues from crumbling infrastructure to climate change and school construction. Donovan’s appointment should hearten all architects.

Others within Obama’s close circle of advisers know, understand, and value design and planning. Physicist Steven Chu, a Nobel laureate and head of the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratories, in California, comes from an institution that has pioneered the relationship of buildings and energy usage, and he will head the Department of Energy. Valerie Jarrett, whose grandfather was the first African-American head of the Chicago Housing Authority, and whose current job is C.E.O. of the The Habitat Company, a real estate development and management firm, will become White House Senior Adviser and Assistant to the President for Intergovernmental Relations and Public Liaison. Penny Pritzker, who will not serve in the cabinet, nevertheless served as the Obama campaign chairman and comes from a family that has employed architecture as a vital component of its business success and celebrated its role through the Pritzker Prize. She has been an articulate and visible spokesperson for architecture.

What can we do to support this auspicious beginning? Andrew Goldberg, the American Institute of Architects senior director for federal relations, recommends several initiatives for the administration. If money will be pumped into the economy to rebuild, he and the AIA suggest that we “not just build, but build better,” to encourage mixed-use density and smart growth when planning infrastructure improvements in addition to rebuilding highways. As a guidepost of AIA intentions, he points to the AIA’s “Rebuild and Renew” initiative. Furthermore, the AIA will support a new Office of Urban Policy proposed by the new administration that will include a component on planning and design under the new coordinator of energy and climate policy (and former EPA head), Carol Browner. And following up Obama’s own wish, the AIA offers to help in greening the White House as a signal to other federal agencies and the nation of our potential to improve energy usage as a step toward improving all public buildings.

In reality, as of this writing, the rain continues to fall. Donovan has not yet made it through the hurdles of Congressional inquiry. Obama has not raised his hand nor put a nickel into improvement programs. The recession still looms. In the meanwhile, with the beginning of a new year, we have the opportunity to rethink our priorities as architects, cutting down on our fat intake, knowing that a new administration will bring change. We may become leaner during the transition, but we can be smarter, too. For now, stay alert. Raise your umbrella. Watch the horizon. The architectural signals from Washington seem positive.

If you wish to write to our editor-in-chief you can email him rivy@mcgraw-hill.com.