Who Speaks for Architects?

Who Speaks for Architects?

The New York architectural community’s relationship to Bill de Blasio’s mayoralty is a complicated one. Not only does the mayor not understand or value the contributions that design and architecture can make to the quality of everyday life, but he also turns his back on many of the positive contributions the Bloomberg administration made in that realm.

Bloomberg can rightly be accused of many things, including overstaying his welcome as mayor, but he was undisputedly good for architects and he appreciated the value design can bring to the metropolis. While the city certainly became a welcoming land bank for the one percent under Bloomberg, his DDC and DOT directors actively transformed every part of the city from Midtown Manhattan to Arverne in the Rockaways. Not only did we get a bike share program, but we also got new fire stations, libraries, and NYCHA community centers.

De Blasio, on the other hand, seems to consider design simply an add-on for the middle classes and a step to an increasingly gentrified city. Current agency heads have told us that there is a new collaborative spirit in city hall under de Blasio—and this is a good sign—but the mayor has never uttered a word about what his future city should or could look like. Nor has he nodded toward the benefits of a better-designed city.

It is an open question and one worth asking: How much is the architecture community contributing to de Blasio’s perception that architecture is only for the wealthy and middle class?

We all know that de Blasio is hyper focused on the most important physical issue facing the city: affordable housing for the poor, homeless, and even working middle classes.

As a result, architects in the city today cannot help but be supportive of the mayor’s housing initiatives if they believe in a diverse and livable city.

But the particulars of how we get to a more equitable city are more complicated. The architect Claire Weisz wrote AN, “Where does the architecture and design community stand on the recent decision not to extend the 421-a tax exemption or abatement program?”

This is a political initiative that would undoubtedly help encourage the development of housing in the five boroughs and help generate commissions for architects. It would also, if framed properly, help provide more affordable housing.

Perhaps the problem is that, while New York City has an unparalleled number of organizations devoted to design research and its impact on government policy, none of them actively lobby to take political positions on urban issues that are controversial or complicated.

It may be time for a political organization of architects that can demand, for example, that workers who build buildings be treated fairly and have decent worksites. For the first time in a half-century, new luxury housing is being created in the city that does not pay union scale wages to its workers. Perhaps it is time for architects to demand that workers on our buildings be paid a living wage or even start refusing work if this is the case with developers. These are difficult issues and it is hard to imagine individual architects making this personal stand, but what about forming an organization that makes the case for design and public policy around these hard, difficult decisions?

It’s time to recreate an organization like the Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility (ADPSR) to make the connections between how to make a livable city for all and what architects can contribute to this discussion. ADPSR once made a connection between the costs of war and a lack of a dynamic urban policy (and was awarded an AIA citation of honor in 1993). A new and different organization might argue the connection between design and everyday public policy forcefully—and what the city might look like if it does make this connection.