Shop Talk

Former NEA design director Jeff Speck talks with Maurice Cox, the architect recently selected to succeed him.

I can’t say that I didn’t see it coming. When my phone rang and the caller ID said “Metropolis,” there was little doubt what was next. The day before, Maurice Cox—architect, educator, and former mayor of Charlottesville, Virginia—had been appointed director of design at the National Endowment for the Arts. Now a contributing editor of this fine magazine, I had recently stepped down after four years in that selfsame NEA job. Guess who they wanted to do the interview?

I accepted the assignment with pleasure. A firm believer in guilt by association, I had watched my empty desk with some anxiety over the selection of a replacement. And I had encouraged many talented and socially conscious designers to apply, Cox prominent among them. Now my reputation was secure! But were my programs? Time to ask some questions.

The NEA’s director of design oversees all of the grants that the agency gives in design, from graphic design to regional planning. He also steers three “leadership initiatives” that the NEA funds, all of which teach design skills to community leaders including mayors and, more recently, governors. As a federal appointment, the job carries its share of paperwork—and frustrations—but also provides the special satisfaction that comes from identifying those who are doing the most good and giving them cash to do more of it. Here is what Cox had to say about his new job and his path to Washington.

At last year’s Aspen Design Summit you presented a project that completely captivated the audience.
That was Bayview village, an initiative started in 1996, in which my office worked closely with a community of rural poor on the eastern shore of Virginia to create a counterproposal to a maximum-security prison that was planned for their neighborhood as economic development.

Were they being displaced?
Worse, they were on the verge of being stigmatized for the rest of their existence. They fought this prison very effectively over a three-year period, and once the governor backed away from this plan, they were left with the question, What now?

And you volunteered to be the town planner and architect for these people?
We worked pro bono as the community planners, and we assembled a team to address the larger issues of environmental and spatial justice. We brought in the Nature Conservancy to propose a grant, and won funding from the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA grant enabled this community to become the planner, developer, and affordable-housing provider for its own rural village.

So now, a few years later, they’re living in nice homes. I remember the conclusion we reached in our working group. The theme of the conference was “Taking It to Scale”—repeating local successes globally. Our first thought was that we need more projects like this. But then we realized that what we really need are more Maurice Coxes. Because what you accomplished there required a tremendous amount of effort and was not scalable without the presence of people like you who are really going to take on huge challenges like this one.

Well, what’s needed in the design disciplines is a sense of urgency that these types of effort are the work of our profession. We need more designers that frame their work as socially relevant and, if necessary, politically charged. That is the larger challenge to designers: How do we make it a central part of our practice to serve communities that are not traditionally served by design?

So is that a particular challenge you hope to take on in your time at the NEA?
Absolutely. The reality is that if design is going to become a relevant issue to the majority of Americans, we’re going to have to speak directly to them. Design is not a conversation that can be exclusive to the design community.

When it becomes powerful is when that conversation spills out into the general public. And when the general public begins to equate design with a quality of life, then they’re going to demand it, just as they demand good schools and good health care—as a part of what they perceive to be their rights as citizens. I think of this as democratizing design so that more people begin to understand the relevance of the buildings around them.

Sometimes architects don’t even understand the relevance of buildings around them!
You know, I was reminded of my time living in Italy, when I would see schoolteachers taking children around to the great churches and cathedrals, and they would talk to these students about the buildings’ designs, the role that they played in the community, and the architects who designed them. Fourth-graders could name the architect of their city’s cathedral. It was a powerful experience to understand that they start so young. In my own experience as a parent—whose children were born in Italy, and their nursery school in Florence was the foundling hospital by Brunelleschi—I have such vivid memories of walking, holding my son’s hand, every day through that courtyard. And to think they received this kind of visual stimulus from their very early years, it’s no wonder my kids are now urbanites and on the edges of architectural and urban careers.

I’m sure you had no influence.
None whatsoever.

The sort of bottom-up advocacy you describe is a great balance to the NEA programs that you are inheriting, such as the Mayors’ Institute on City Design, which are more top-down. As a former mayor, how do you feel about these programs?
They’re the main reason I took the job. I know what it’s like as a mayor to withstand the controversy over, for example, a piece of public art like the 54-foot-long slate chalkboard, designed by Peter O’Shea and Robert Win­stead, placed in front of city hall. Listen, in my experience, mayors and other policy makers are starved for tools, for a vocabulary, to talk about design in a way that reaches their constituents; and designers are in a unique position to be advisers to them. And the Mayors’ Institute gives many mayors their first opportunity to be grounded by a group of design professionals. I mean, they are constantly advised by all kinds of professions, but…

Rarely designers.
Exactly—who can show them what design thinking and design problem-solving actually look like. So not only are they em­powered by that, they want to know how do they replicate it, how can they go home and have the same resources available to their professional staff and their communities?

Let’s discuss your tenure. You will find that it’s hard to accomplish very much in a single two-year NEA term because of the time it takes simply to process things in government. I ended up staying for two terms. I told you not to apply for this job unless you were committed to at least three years. Are you going to keep that promise?
Oh, you want that on record? Let’s just say that it’s becoming increasingly clear to me that the work of the design director cannot be easily achieved in a two-year term, so I find myself already looking beyond two years in order to bring my own thoughts about new national initiatives to bear on the NEA.

I’ll take that as a yes. As you know, the main initiative that we began during my tenure—also covered in Metropolis—was the Governors’ Institute, which teaches smart-growth techniques to state leadership. How do you feel about that program? Are you going to kill my baby?
Your baby is safe. I am elated that someone identified a missing component to effective urban design and regional planning. Particularly when you’re dealing with issues of transportation, housing, and instruments that shape the way development happens locally, the most powerful and antiurban policies exist at the state level. That program is an important recognition of the role governors play in shaping the built environment, and I’m looking forward to participating in the sessions.

I’ll end with a question that I was asked when I took the job. I can tell you for a fact that there were some other very strong candidates for the position. Why do you think the chairman selected you?
I think chairman Dana Gioia understood that I shared his mandate to spread the wealth of the arts into every ­corner of America, which for me means placing design within reach of communities that traditionally have been outside what we think of as the cultural capitals. He could have been reading a page from my own professional experience in that regard. It probably also helped that I have a serious focus on implementation. I know what it’s like to have an exciting transformative idea as a mayor and then to have to convince thousands of people to follow. And so I think he understood how important it is to make design ideas actually happen, and probably welcomed the opportunity to hire someone who has struggled through that before and had a reasonable track record of success.

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