History writer David McCullough cited hearing Yale legend Vincent Scully speak about the Brooklyn Bridge as the inspiration for his second book, which was all about the New York City landmark. The subject of his latest work—the enthralling influence that the city of Paris had on many players in American history—also stemmed from an encounter with architecture, he went on to explain during his keynote address at the opening session of the American Institute of Architects’ convention in Washington, D.C.
“What exactly is in Paris? No great view to the mountains, no crystalline panorama of the ocean. There’s a river. But everything else has been created by human beings,” he said to an audience that packed a vast auditorium in the Washington Convention Center. “The magic is spectacular because of spatial relations, because of building with light, as Scully would say.”
McCullough pointed out that Pierre L'Enfant’s plan for Washington’s radial avenues find echoes in the French capital, and he wasn’t the only speaker at this morning’s event to invoke the Paris-born American architect’s legacy while discussing the imprint of design on the nation’s capital. AIA president Jeffery Potter brought up L'Enfant as he hosted the series of talks. And D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray referenced his vision before drawing applause with a call for Federal representation for the District, which currently doesn’t enjoy that privilege of full-fledged statehood. The mayor went on to declare May 17th officially “AIA Day” in D.C.
The most impassioned reference to L'Enfant came from a member of the Congressional Bike Caucus, Representative Earl Blumenauer, a Democrat from Oregon. He began by calling on architects to drive the movement toward more sustainable American cityscapes by convincing the public and the officials it elects that improving cities is not a “matter of arts and crafts” but one of “bread and butter.” Wearing his signature bow tie and a green pocket square, he then urged the packed auditorium to lobby for its own profession by demanding Federal dollars for “pencil-ready projects instead of shovel ready projects,” referencing the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which mainly funded projects well past the design phase. He called on the architects assembled to approach their political efforts with the fervor of the National Rifle Association. “Do you care any less than they do?” he asked. “For the cost of one latté a month, you could sponsor $10,000 a year for members of the house and senate,” he said. “With enough left over to defeat your opponents.”
When his turn to speak came, Jim Raines, chair of ArchiPAC, the AIA’s lobbying arm, said that he had spent some time ruminating on how to address the crowd before deciding not to say anything at all. As he ripped up a sheet of paper that presumably contained his prepared remarks, grabbing a chuckle from the room, he instead urged the audience to visit the ArchiPAC booth stationed prominently at the main entrance to the convention center. When I stopped by, two people behind a counter wouldn’t comment on specific policy goals, but a sign touted benefits and gifts available to contributors at different levels. With the November election looming, the speakers’ comments at the opening session and the pride-of-place given to the PAC both point to the AIA ramping up its advocacy this political season. Stay tuned...
Top: David McCullough delivers the keynote address at the opening session at the 2012 AIA convention. Above: Representative Earl Blumenauer appeals to architects for political fervor.