William Stewart

During a visit to the AIA’s archives, I thumbed through a 1950s issue of AIA Bulletin (which is no longer in print). As I was doing that, I became curious about the materials developed for that first generation of architects immediately after World War II. How would those materials and products (and the information about them) compare to the mind-boggling array of new products I now see on convention expo floors?

Then, however, I became increasingly distracted by a series of published reports that had been developed by the AIA’s Committee on National Defense, which painted a very vivid picture. After 1945, our cities were crowded and often dirty. There also was a desire to have a home of one’s own—a vision that was relentlessly advocated by the mass media. But as I read through the AIA reports, it quickly became clear that emptying our major cities and spreading out to the countryside was deliberate government policy, not merely an alignment of social forces.

Publications today have reported on the move back into America’s historic downtowns, each publication offering one of a number of explanations about this reverse migration. But what prompted people to abandon cities in the first place?

Guided by images of the wartime bombing of cities, the U.S. government directed billions of dollars to the Interstate Highway program and made homeownership in the suburbs affordable. Industry (i.e., jobs) followed. With little thought given to unintended consequences, architects, planners, and developers worked with the government to reshape the country in a way that was unprecedented in human history. We live with those consequences today.

Although history seldom repeats itself, there are lessons that architects and planners should learn from this recent episode in our history. First, we must not be stampeded by the moment. Planning may be imperfect, but it is necessary—if done with great humility and a spirit of inquiry that never flags. Second—and this became clear from those AIA reports—many experts were consulted in those nervous first days of the Cold War. One group that wasn’t consulted on the proposed changes was the most expert group of all: the people who would be affected.

Public input is messy, but community and placemaking are too important to be left to a few select individuals. Engagement with all the stakeholders, rather than social engineering from the top, is the lifeblood of a healthy democracy.

Helene Combs Dreiling, FAIA
2014 President