Jeff Potter, FAIA, 2012 President
William Stewart Photography Jeff Potter, FAIA, 2012 President

“Just because you do not take an interest in politics doesn’t mean politics won’t take an interest in you,” Pericles once said. In this presidential election year, the Athenian stateman’s words are a timely reminder that we can’t afford to sit out the political process. We must roll up our sleeves on the way to the ballot box.

I’ll be the first to admit that getting hip deep in politics can be frustrating, unpleasant, and, yes, heartbreaking—whether it’s for the local school board or Congress. I’ve watched people throw up their hands in disgust at what they see as the complete breakdown of civil discourse and all-too-common pandering to the electorate’s worst instincts. Frankly, I’ve had to hold my nose when watching some of the ads on television—and we still have about nine months to go before Election Day.

A little historical perspective may be in order. If you haven’t already done so, read up on the campaign between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams in 1800. The reading is unpleasant and dims the halos associated with both men. But we as a nation have endured political friction because, by and large, we have continued to engage our elected leadership at all levels of government. The dream of a more perfect union lives on because enough decent people continue to care, and their caring has made all the difference. AIA members need to be among that group—and increasingly we are, each in his and her own way fostering more livable communities.

Between 2008 and 2010 (the latest year for which the AIA has accurate figures), there’s been nearly a 50 percent uptick in civic engagement led by AIA members such as Klaus Philipsen, FAIA (Chair of the Baltimore Urban Design Committee); the Honorable Bruce Tyler, AIA (Council Member, First District, Richmond, Va.); Cheri Gerou, AIA (Colorado State House member); Eric Siwy, Assoc. AIA, and member of AIAS (active in Honolulu infrastructure initiatives); Jack Matthews, AIA (former mayor and current Council Member, San Mateo, Calif.); and those who selflessly volunteer for the AIA’s disaster-assistance teams. The list—happily—goes on.

Last November, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg stood in a conference room inside New York’s Department of Buildings headquarters on lower Broadway surrounded by his top deputies. They had gathered to unveil a new high-tech system that allows the city’s architects and engineers to interface with plan examiners at the city’s 17 different departments with oversight of their projects. This didn’t just happen because the mayor thought it was a good idea; it’s because AIA New York successfully lobbied to get a seat at the table—in this case, 17 of them—where decisions about the shaping of the city are made. In South Dakota, 50 first- and second-year architecture students from South Dakota State University traveled to Mobridge to measure, photograph, and examine individual blocks within the town to begin the process of creating a new vision for the community. I don’t know how the vision shapes up, but of this much I’m sure: The experience will be transformational for most of the students who participate—and it will be transformational for that community’s understanding and appreciation of architects.

When the Institute moved its national headquarters from New York to Washington in 1899, it wasn’t for the food or the climate. AIA leadership boarded that southbound train to be part of the process that was literally shaping the country—in the form of new courthouses, post offices, custom houses, and federal office buildings. They also came to advocate for national codes and standards, which would serve public health, safety, and welfare. They even found time as they settled into their new home to revive and restore Pierre-Charles L’Enfant’s design for Washington, D.C.

Next month, AIA leadership from all over the country will gather in Washington for Grassroots, an advocacy and leadership conference. This is a unique opportunity for component staff and volunteer leaders to press the flesh in the halls of Congress and to advocate for a legislative agenda that will put architects back to work doing what they do best: designing and creating buildings and communities that address the challenges of this new century.

I used the word “unique” to describe this annual opportunity. But successful advocacy derives from citizen architects doggedly engaging the political process every day in every community. After all, architecture is a political art.

Of this you can be sure: If architects don’t engage in the process that shapes the built environment, others with different motives and priorities will.