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Editorial> Why We Do City Work

A few weeks ago, the New York City Department of Design and Construction (DDC) released its 2009 list of architects eligible for municipal projects. The lucky few numbered 28. The 329 applicants who didn’t make the cut, and the many more who didn’t bother to figure out the process, may assume it’s not worth the effort. But the truth is that New York City, where a complex fraternity of agencies handle contracting individually, has fine-tuned an approach—Robert Moses called it the New York Method—that is relatively generous in involving private-sector architects in public work, especially as compared to other cities.

An informal survey by the AIA shows that architects at public agencies most often serve as administrators and project managers, contracting considerable amounts of work to the private sector. But this is not always the case, setting up an uncomfortable competition for work between city agencies and private firms. As reported in our most recent California edition (AN 08_10.28.2009_CA), architects in San Francisco have had to launch formal complaints to pry municipal work from the clutches of the Department of Public Works—and its 65-person Bureau of Architecture—whose plate is loaded with 120 projects valued at $75 million.

In Boston, there is also a department of architecture, but its staff architects function primarily as project managers, while the Massachusetts State University system has initiated a novel approach by which building contracts have been turned over to private companies that handle all aspects of the job, from initial competition to construction, and local architects know they must appeal to those private entities for public school work.

In his compelling analysis, The Image of the Architect (Yale, 1983), Andrew Saint found that the fight of private architects to get a share of government work is as old as professional societies themselves. He describes how the American Institute of Architects in the late 1800s sprang from the gentlemen architects of New York joining the business-focused architects of Chicago, both disturbed by “a chronic incompetence in making provisions for the post offices, custom houses, and other official buildings” at a time when construction was booming and the American landscape was forging its identity.

Municipal work is often humble by definition—park sheds, cell-phone towers, and bus shelters—but it can be more than utilitarian infrastructure. It communicates the DNA of our culture and our values. As a European, Saint was astonished that in the United States it was often the private houses that showed the world who Americans are, rather than our public buildings.

For some time now, infrastructure has been everyone’s favorite word, but for architects trying to get involved it has remained a slippery goal. On November 16, in Washington, D.C., a conference sponsored by UCLA’s Department of Architecture and Urban Design, called WPA 2.0, will urge architects to “take back the streets” and along with them the public buildings, parks, bridges, and roads across the nation that are the most obvious symbols of a true investment in the future. It’s a promising sign, and architects must continue that good fight to bring their design perspective and social awareness to public works. Municipal architecture may sound too prosaic—and the effort to get it, too fraught—but it is also the first step to shaping the city itself.

Julie V. Iovine and William Menking