Architects and other designers deserve a public advocate. For several years, architectural critics have touted a rise in popular appreciation for good design. Perhaps as a result of the events of September 11, 2001, for the first time in many years design seems to be on everyone’s lips, from professors to schoolchildren. Ordinary people as well as the erudite are looking for design to solve problems, but also for something more. Daniel Libeskind equates our search at Ground Zero with a spiritual quest.
At this critical juncture, architects need strong voices in government and in our communities. Our concerns extend beyond the immediate headlines of terrorism and war; we need leaders capable of articulating the everyday issues we face as a civilization: the spread of urban blight to the suburbs from the cities, the ennobling potential of housing, the beneficial role of design throughout the public realm, alternatives to the bunker mentality in an insecure world, the glories of open space. The need in government alone is staggering: the EPA, the GSA, HUD, and the Department of State control millions of square feet of buildings and can help determine future trends. Where can we find someone to describe the role of design in our culture, and then convince others of its worth?
For the past 35 years, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), and particularly its director of design, has worked to promote not only architecture, but all design, with the potential for a direct effect on what we architects do and what we care about. Ronald E. Bogle, the new executive director of the American Architectural Foundation (AAF) and a former Oklahoma City resident, witnessed firsthand the effectiveness of one program, the Mayors’ Institute of City Design, following the bombing of the federal building there.
He believes that the mayors’ program, a partnership of the NEA, the U.S. Conference of Mayors, and the AAF, has developed “a hands-on program that brings the resources of the profession to mayors with the practical problems that they deal with.” Today’s climate demands increased investment in such efforts.
While its current programs remain effective and intact, the NEA faces challenges that all architects deserve to understand. First, the organization lost its director, Michael Hammond, who died shortly after taking office in January 2002. An acting chairman has filled his position awaiting the next appointment. While funding appears to be proceeding satisfactorily, the entire Department of the Interior’s budget is being written, negotiated, and reviewed on Capitol Hill this fall. In tight economic times, anything might happen.
More challenging, however, may be the fate of the design director’s position. Mark Robbins, the previous office holder, has stepped down as director of design after a tenure that witnessed greater visibility, an increased budget for the department, and growth in vital programs. Today, however, staffing for design seems minimized, limited to grant recipients outside the directorship. Obviously, the Graham Foundation cannot fund the U.S. government. For the coming year, replacing the directorship with a strong individual backed by adequately funded programs should be a priority for the NEA.
Now is the time to speak out for the program’s growth, not retrenchment: The benefits far outweigh the minimal costs. Architects will be well served to visit the NEA Web site, www.arts.gov, to learn more about current programs, including the composition of the council and its leadership. More important, we should let our own congressional delegations—our national representatives and senators—know the importance of the director of design. Why? Because in this troubling time, as they will no doubt in the future, Americans are looking for answers that only design can provide, in a language the entire world can understand. We need, and deserve, a government advocate at the highest level.