Faith in Design

What if creative intelligence was encouraged in our public realm? We have the precedent.

In May, thousands of architects from around the country arrived at our nation’s capital for their annual convention. The day before the full educational programs kicked in, we gathered for the Moynihan Symposium on Public Design. This special event celebrated the 50th anniversary of a terse but powerful document with the workmanlike title “Report to the President [Kennedy] by the Ad Hoc Committee on Federal Office Space, June 1, 1962,” written by Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Known now as the Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture, Moynihan’s report laid out a vision for both Pennsylvania Avenue and the entire government sector. It was well ahead of its time, advocating great architecture (shorn of an “official” style), public art, and access for the disabled.

In our December 2000 issue, before our sense of security was shattered, we worried about the fate of federal architecture as the most ardent supporter of excellence in the public environment was about to leave Washington after 24 years in the Senate. And so we wrote, “From Pennsylvania Avenue to Penn Station, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan has championed great American architecture. He leaves Capitol Hill with a legacy and a question: Will anything get built without him?” As it turns out, the General Services Administration’s Design Excellence program, which began in 1994 while Moynihan was still in the Senate, led to many good federal buildings. What no one foresaw was 9/11, and the subsequent lockdown of the public realm.

In one session at the symposium, Supreme Court justice Stephen G. Breyer talked about his beloved Supreme Court building. The grand staircase of this shimmering white neoclassical confection, designed by Cass Gilbert and built between 1931 and 1935, is now off limits. Those who’d like to sprint up to the front door are out of luck. Entry is through a side door, with its requisite screening rituals. In contrast to numbingly lowbrow interventions that have cropped up as forests of bollards and outsized planters all over Washington, D.C., and elsewhere, Justice Breyer talked about Boston’s John Joseph Moakley United States Courthouse, built in pre-terror times, with its public garden, waterfront promenade, and lively restaurant all sending signals of openness and inclusion. He spoke eloquently about great architecture and its ability to reflect the values of our democratic society. I knew then that we had to find a way for him to tell us more. We did. And this fall we found ourselves being greeted by a shirt-sleeved justice walking down the interior steps of the Moakley courthouse.

With his faith in the creative powers of architects and landscape architects resonating in my ear, I must ask: Why not organize a massive intervention of our most creative design professionals, in collaboration with security specialists, to solve our persisting security dilemmas beautifully? It’s time for a new set of guiding principles. And in the process we may, once more, feel like the freedom-loving Americans that we know we are.

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