Interview with Stephen T. Ayers
The former Architect of the Capitol looks back on his career.
Stephen T. Ayers, FAIA, retired last fall from his post as Architect of the Capitol. “People often said to me, ‘The Architect of the Capitol? It was designed over 200 years ago—what do you do?’ ” As he explains, his office oversees 18.5 million square feet of space in 36 buildings and an annual budget of $730 million. (“That’s a Fortune 500 company!” he says.) Ayers, 56, who won the AIA’s Thomas Jefferson Award for Public Architecture last year, spoke with RECORD about his three decades of public service, what the job requires, and his plans.
The U.S. Capitol is the most prominent symbol of our democracy. What goes into maintaining it?
People don’t understand what it takes to make that machine work—just the daily churn of keeping everything running, keeping occupants cool or warm, keeping the food available, processing the events, making the hearings happen, making sure more than 300 elevators work, and keeping the trains running. That is $400 million every single year. And on top of that, we reinvest another $330 million of capital improvements in our buildings.
How do you balance the evolving needs of the building with its preservation?
While the Capitol Building might be a museum, so to speak, it’s really a working office building every day. It requires a plethora of cabling and all of the most modern fire and life-safety interventions. While you may see a sprinkler head in some building elsewhere that’s prominent, ugly, and obtrusive, you’ll never see that on Capitol Hill. Every single sprinkler head is very carefully planned—where and how it enters the space, what it looks like, what color it is—and carried out in the most sensitive way. We make the investment to not surface-mount any of that infrastructure. It is all buried in the walls. As our own authority, having jurisdiction, we’re able to make the decisions to balance preservation and life safety in a way that’s best for everyone. The Capitol is 225 years old, so it doesn’t meet modern building code. We don’t have the egress capacity in the Capitol that you’d have in a new, modern museum. So we have to very carefully regulate who is where, and how many people are in the building at any given time.
One of the major projects completed during your tenure was the Capitol Visitor Center. What was it like working on it?
We had finished the design, construction contracts were awarded, and shovels were in the ground when 9/11 hit. [Ayers joined the office of the Architect of the Capitol in 1997, working in several roles until his appointment as AOC in 2010.] That changed the world for architects, engineers, and security professionals. We went completely back to the drawing board and redesigned that building for fire, life-safety, and all manner of security issues—not at the 11th hour, but at the 13th hour. They were absolutely massive changes, to the tune of more than $100 million.
Your former deputy, Christine Merdon, will serve as acting Architect of the Capitol until the Senate confirms your successor. What advice do you have for the person who fills the role?
You have to be strong enough to make long-term decisions. You’re going to get a lot of pressure to make short-term shortcuts in preservation and other issues, but you have to be strong enough and confident enough to make long-term decisions for the institution.
What’s next for you?
I’m going to push the reset button on life and be open to what life brings and has to offer, and I’m excited to do that. I’m sure I’ll continue to be involved in the built environment: architecture and history and preservation are what I love. For so many years in a high-profile job, I needed to know every detail. I’m looking forward to changing that perspective in my life.