in design, we trust

e: I found this article posted in Please read up to the last part and what do you think about our own national architecture policy?

In Design, We Trust

Ask not what design can do for you. Ask what your nation can do to promote design.

By: Cathy Lang Ho

Stadiums, aqueducts, bridges, opera houses, museums, city halls—going back to the ancients, extraordinary public building projects are the most enduring evidence of a civilization’s technological and artistic prowess, and, ineluctably, its political and cultural ambition. Today’s courthouses, schools, highways, embassies, and so on are likewise a repository of a nation’s ideals and competence at a particular moment. Only a fledgling idea three decades ago, today, architectural policies serve many countries as a powerful tool that may be put in the service of a range of functions, practical and symbolic alike.

France, the Netherlands, Finland, Germany, Denmark, and Norway are just a handful of the two dozen or so countries—located primarily in Europe—that have introduced robust national architecture policies, state-funded initiatives, or government agencies dedicated to advancing design excellence in the public realm. The idea is only gaining momentum. The Brussels-based European Forum for Architectural Policies (FEPA), established in 1997, compiles best practices, convenes officials, and shares knowledge on how nations may best formulate and implement their own policies or systems. In Europe, a national architectural policy is becoming as standard as, say, adopting a national policy on climate, energy, or housing.

And it makes sense. Why shouldn’t all developed nations articulate a position on a field that impacts everything from resource consumption to urban development, public safety to economic growth?

France’s system is the oldest and, in many respects, the most successful, proving that government-backed efforts can not only elevate the quality of civic construction but also embed an attitude among politicians and the general population that design is intertwined with myriad matters of national concern.

The defining moment for France’s architecture policy came in 1977 with a law that declared architecture “un intérêt public,” officially rendering it a social issue and thus the government’s responsibility to defend and promote. This law brought about the creation of the Conseil d’Architecture, d’Urbanisme et de l’Environnement (CAUE), with offices across France’s 91 administrative departments advising local officials, developers, and citizens on construction projects and competitions.

Norway’s national architecture policy, adopted in 2009, is among the most recent. It is also impressively far-reaching, drafted with the participation of 13 of its 18 ministries (ranging from the ministries of Defense to Children and Equality). The 100-plus-page document pointedly regards architecture as an apparatus to improve society, safeguard culture, and stimulate the economy.

Highlighting three major priorities—sustainability, urban and social transformation, and knowledge and innovation—the policy begins with the position that the government should act as a role model and ends with the goal of increasing the visibility of Norwegian architecture internationally. “It’s not just about promoting architecture but about seeing how architecture and politics can work together to solve problems,” says Lotte Grepp Knutsen, state secretary in the Ministry of Culture.

With one major exception, developed nations have increasingly adopted centralized policies on architecture over the past two decades. Would such action—whether a policy, a federal agency or commission, executive order or some other central effort—be feasible in the United States?

The U.S. government, in its own way, has promoted architecture and design excellence throughout its history: Thomas Jefferson, himself a noteworthy designer, was the earliest proponent of the idea that architecture could play a significant role in the important task of national growth and accretion—then, a very pressing concern for the former colonies. A look at the country’s built legacy shows impressive design high points, from City Beautiful urban plans to major infrastructure projects to a vast array of exemplary federally funded buildings, memorials, and monuments.

The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA, founded under President Johnson in 1965) and the General Services Administration’s Design Excellence Program (launched in 1994 during the Clinton administration) are the most directly engaged in promoting design at the highest level, though the government’s efforts are channeled on multiple fronts, including the National Endowment for the Humanities, the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, the Smithsonian, and the State Department (which oversees the country’s representation at international expositions and the construction of overseas embassies and residences).

The support is clearly there, but the efforts are dispersed and thus don’t register as powerfully as they might with respect to nurturing an awareness among government agencies and the general public of the importance of design to our culture—and also the economy. This might explain why last August the NEA and GSA jointly issued a request for proposals (RFP) for “the research, analysis, and planning of a new design initiative.”

A team led by Adam Yarinsky, AIA, of New York–based Architecture Research Office (ARO); Syracuse University architecture dean Mark Robbins, AIA; and HR&A partner James Lima is currently exploring strategies that, as requested by the RFP, “enhance the GSA’s commitment to design excellence, and inform the NEA’s investments in good design, livable communities, and creative place-making.” The RFP’s overall aim is to “inculcate an ethic of quality design across federal agencies in such areas as urban design, landscape architecture, graphic design, and in public spaces generally.”

Asked how he envisions the final form or result of the study, Jason Schupbach, the NEA’s director of design, says, “We can’t have any preconceived notions. Certainly we are looking at other [nations’] approaches, but whatever we come up with has to work within the United States and the system we have.”

The current inquiry has roots in a series of discussions that Yarinsky and engineer Guy Nordenson organized in 2008, debating issues about infrastructure, sustainability, and climate control. This led to their proposal for the formation of a sort of federal design commission that would assist federal agencies and recipients of federal funding to ensure a rigorous design review and procurement process. At that moment, Congress was just about to approve the $789 billion stimulus package, which promised to fund major infrastructure projects, so the timing seemed right.

“Many of the issues that he and I were interested in—such as linking infrastructure planning, transportation, and urban livability to development—are definitely part of our thinking,” says Yarinsky, whose team will complete its study this spring.

“In the federal government, there is a recognition that decision-making is interrelated—for example, what HUD [U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development] or DOT [U.S. Department of Transportation] are doing overlaps and there’s an understanding of the need for everyone to talk to each other,” says Robbins. “So one thing we are considering is how to enhance communications among the agencies.” Several agencies already have a comfortable history of collaborating on design issues; for example, the State Department is looking to the GSA for guidance on its own design excellence program for overseas constructions.

The complexity of the government’s structure and division of responsibilities is just one of the many obstacles that any sort of unified position or strategy would face. The U.S. is hardly as compact as Norway (population 5 million) or even France (population 62 million), and the notion of tax dollars supporting something explicitly regarded as “cultural” is regarded with suspicion by many officials on Capitol Hill. Never mind the fact that architecture and design are not merely artistic or cultural pursuits.

In the U.S., “culture” in the most general sense tends to get polarized and politicized in a way that is inconceivable in Europe, where citizens expect their governments to subsidize public amenities, including the arts. “The political or ideological question never comes up,” says French architectural historian Jean-Louis Cohen, explaining that there is little risk that France’s architecture programs will be defunded even during the most conservative political cycles. “They have proven to provide tangible benefits to the built environment, the efficiency of development, and French culture.”

Owing to the efforts of FEPA and other forums, such as regular assemblies among the world’s ministers of culture, many other countries, and certainly the remaining members of the European Union, are on the path toward adopting official architecture policies, convinced of the long-term economic and social payoff of promoting architecture and all it encompasses—buildings, infrastructure, public space, neighborhoods, towns. The U.S. lacks a cabinet-level body or federal-agency equivalent to the culture ministries of its European counterparts, but even among those forward-looking nations that have adopted top-down architecture policies, there have been setbacks.

The near-death experience of the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE), the adviser to the British government on architecture, urban design, and public space, might be seen as a cautionary tale for nations adopting new architecture policies. Long held up as a role model for its good work—since 1999, it has conducted thousands of independent design reviews which have influenced authorities and the fate of a good many developments—it nonetheless lost all of its parliamentary funding in October 2010 as a result of the budget crisis.

A last-minute merger with the Design Council saved CABE, though its staff and functions have been severely cut back. Interestingly, the Design Council’s federal funding was spared, perhaps due to its affiliation with the Department of Business and thus the causes of industry and manufacturing. (CABE’s support came primarily from the Department of Culture.) Going forward, both will become full-time charities, relying more on commercial sources of income, such as fee-based consultation, a service CABE has performed for some years for the 2012 Olympic committee or the national rail authority, for example. In retrospect, CABE director Paul Finch says that other funding models, such as taxes on new constructions—like the taxes that sustain France’s CAUE—would have entrenched the organization more deeply within the government system.

At the heart of the matter is the value placed on the long term versus the short term. In order for the U.S. to remain vibrant and competitive—as President Barack Obama cited as key to the nation’s recovery during his State of the Union address earlier this year—it is clear which view is the wiser. High-speed rail, sustainability, and clean energy, for example, represent sound long-term investments for the country (and planet).

A well-conceived, comprehensive architecture policy could work toward combating the myopic politics that consistently stall such efforts by providing a valuable rubric to link these concerns to one another and to issues periphery to design—especially economic issues such as job creation, expanding exports, or improving national health, just to name a few examples.

Though the likelihood of a national architecture policy for the U.S. may appear inextricably bound to partisan electoral outcomes, no political party owns design—just as no party owns the issues that affect design and are affected in turn by design. “Excellence in design is integral to the federal government’s responsible stewardship of public resources. … It should not be viewed as a luxury added on at extra cost but as a process for increasing the efficiency and quality of our lives. Our ability to compete effectively in international markets depends largely on an often overlooked, but integral element—design quality.” That was not a European culture czar, but rather late President Ronald Reagan, speaking during his presentation of the Presidential Design Awards in 1987.

“Money is getting spent either way, so one would hope that each gesture have as many potential outcomes as possible,” says Robbins. “If we can come up with something that demonstrates the value of design, not as some kind of post-facto mass or decoration but as fundamental to rethinking our environments and the way we live, that would be incredible. The challenge is to show how the strength of our design disciplines can work towards making all the other parts of our culture better, more efficient and successful.”

A Survey of National Architecture Policies

Austria is a federal state (like Germany), which means that its nine Bundesländer are primarily responsible for implementing architectural policies; in other words, provincial governments define their own quality standards for federally funded housing or land-use planning. At the Austrian Parliament’s request, progress in the provinces is analyzed every five years.

In reliable Scandinavian fashion, Denmark’s policy, adopted in 2007, starts by prioritizing “quality of life”—but what’s most interesting about the policy, which was presented as a collaboration between the Ministry of Economic and Business Affairs and the Ministry of Culture, is its emphasis on architecture as it promotes tourism and global exports. The policy states, “Danish architectural businesses constitute a competitive, dynamic and globally oriented sector with documented international experience and power of penetration.”

The success of France’s architecture policies and initiatives owes to a comprehensive, multilayered network that works from the top down to promote the value of design in economic and cultural terms. This network encompasses dozens of councils, interministerial agencies, and other departments.

The Federal Ministry of Transport, Building and Housing launched the Architecture and Baukultur Initiative in 2000. A coalition of nearly three dozen government, university, and industry affiliates—in addition to every imaginable design-related professional organization—the initiative is primarily focused on building awareness among all those involved in the building process and outlining regulations for federal procurement competitions.

The country with the world’s highest number of architects per capita, Italy drafted an architecture policy—but lacks a political champion who will back it. The government created le Direzione Generale per l’Architettura e l’Arte Contemporanee (DARC) in 2001, drawing on the French model of financing municipal competitions—a function DARC has failed to perform.

The Netherlands
This country has the interesting government post of chief architect, a position that rotates among professionals—usually an admired private practitioner, not a career bureaucrat. The chief architect’s responsibility is to “stimulate the architectural quality and urban suitability of government buildings” and to advise the government on policy as well as the selection of architects for state projects.

Norway’s policy integrates discussions about landscape architecture, open space, livable cities, cultural heritage, sustainability, and the expansion of a knowledge industry. The National Tourist Routes perhaps best exemplifies the ambition of the policy: A project of the Norwegian Public Roads Administration, the campaign to develop and improve 18 routes has led to the completion of dozens of stunning works, including observation platforms, footbridges, and kiosks by emerging architects and landscape architects.

United Kingdom
The Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) is often held up as a model that lifts design standards in the development of buildings and public spaces. Since its founding in 1999, CABE—which became a part of the Design Council as of April 1—has conducted over 3,000 reviews of major developments, offering independent critical and technical advice.

The U.S. has enacted more design initiatives than most people are aware of—with particular landmarks occurring during the presidencies of Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Reagan, and Clinton, including the establishment of the National Endowment for the Arts, the Federal Design Improvement Program, and the Presidential Design Awards.


One thought on “in design, we trust”

  1. Thank you for sharing this article. What is your national policy? Asian architecture is currently giving big influences to the world so it is time to honor Asian architects more.

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