Architects know that successful design is not always achieved by just making the client happy. Successful design often means engaging with, and getting the approval of, a variety of stakeholders—residents, business owners, municipal officials—to ensure consensus, or at least mutual respect. It’s an important skill set that architects bring to the job for their clients. It also makes them well-suited to function as elected officials or civic activists—a fact that the AIA’s Citizen Architect program recognizes in the work of about 1,300 of its 80,000 members.
The AIA’s Citizen Architect program was conceived in 2007 to generate programming ideas and networking opportunities for architects who wanted to become civically engaged and give back to their communities. Through the program, architects are encouraged to take part in public service as community leaders or in appointed or elected positions, working to shape design and public policy while elevating the importance of creating sustainable, well-designed communities.
Activist architects at the grassroots level sometimes find that a path can later open to higher public office. “That would definitely be our goal—and something we’ve seen with quite a few members who might start in a more limited role in their community and move up the ladder,” says Brooks Rainwater, Director of Local Relations at AIA.
Cheri Gerou, FAIA, Principal and co-founder of Gerou & Associates and a Colorado state representative, followed this trajectory, starting out as president of the Denver and Colorado AIA chapters before winning a seat in the state legislature. “Architects bring to the table an ability to understand complex systems and the way society functions,” Gerou says. “They also bring to the table a certain level of understanding of regulatory agencies, because we deal with that in our jobs every day.” Gerou likens citizen architects to quarterbacks, who are “whole-brained” in their approach to problem-solving. Like quarterbacks, architects have long-range vision—to see how a community is more than just a collection of individual parts.
“That’s what we do best. Our goal is to solve the problem, protect the public, and, hopefully, improve the quality of life for the public. If you look at those three criteria, it’s a natural fit for involvement as a citizen architect,” Gerou says.
Seeing the world simultaneously on both a micro site-specific scale and macro citywide scale is a unique ability that architects offer the civic-engagement process, says Minneapolis architect and activist Raymond Dehn, Assoc. AIA. Architects are able to “look at systems and how systems overlap, maybe work in harmony or work in contradiction relative to a particular issue,” he says.
Dehn, who is currently running for the Minnesota House of Representatives, points to urban issues (such as congestion), land-use issues, building-code issues, and social-service issues as fair game for an architect’s skill set.
“It’s about thinking about issues in a way that you’re not just looking down the street to the next intersection,” Dehn says, “but you’re also beginning to think about what happens if you turn the corner and go another mile.”
“I think we need to look at it as a participatory democracy, and what we are really looking for as architects is to be leaders within that participatory democracy framework within their own communities,” says Bill Roschen, FAIA, President of the Los Angeles City Planning Commission and co-founder of Roschen Van Cleve Architects. Architects are natural facilitators in the community-design process, but to be truly effective, he argues, communities would be well–served by architects working behind the scenes to set policy.
After years of working as an architect, Roschen made the leap to public service as a way to set the terms of a land-use debate, for instance, rather than to react. “I had enough work experience that I really wanted to not always sit behind my client at the discussion table,” he says, “and I really wanted to be a participant sitting next to my client representing the public interest.”
For Roschen and others, the public-policy process is an eye-opener, offering a broader perspective of what “community” entails than a one-off charrette or Saturday cleanup effort. Still, it’s the spectrum of public-service opportunities available to architects that matters most. “Getting to know people from different walks of life really does make a difference in the community, whether you are doing it in a nonprofit or you’re serving on a planning commission or another board,” says Bruce Tyler, AIA, a principal at Richmond, Va.–based Baskervill and a Richmond city councilman since 2007.
“Once you step out of that back room of an architect’s office,” Tyler adds, “you find yourself beginning to learn a lot about what it really does take to create a building—not only from a physical standpoint but from the conceptual side.”
In governmental or legislative positions, whether an architect is appointed to a board position or higher office, he or she has an extra responsibility to help both community members and their non-architect colleagues to understand the small details and the big picture of how the built environment affects society, from zoning issues to master plans.
“People in government are tasked with quite a few different responsibilities, many of which they may have no formal training in,” says Eric Siwy, Assoc. AIA, a recent graduate of the School of Architecture at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. “It’s important that the people involved are educated in what it is they are actually voting on, both those who are proposing it and also the general population who are voting on it.”
Siwy knows full well the need to educate the community about government decision making: He recently worked to help the public understand the impact of Honolulu’s proposed multibillion-dollar elevated-rail system—which some thought was poorly planned, too big, and too costly. Siwy first learned about the role of the citizen architect through his university’s Citizen Architect class, which was taught by Pat Onishi, AIA, past chair of the AIA’s Board Advocacy Committee Member Outreach Subcommittee and former planning director for the City and County of Honolulu.
While there are countless citizen architects such as Siwy participating on the grassroots level, there are few participants on the regional and national level. “I think that architects do have, in a way, a civic responsibility to be involved in their communities at the local level, to help shape the built environment and to enhance the quality of life,” says Jack Matthews, AIA, former mayor and current city council member of San Mateo, Calif. “We all believe that the architectural form and the urban design of our cities has a lot to do with the quality of life in our communities.”
In Los Angeles, many of those local opportunities can be found in the city’s Neighborhood Councils, which are elected bodies of citizens who weigh in on an array of issues, including planning and community development. “If we had just 3 percent of architects involved in local leadership, it would change the way we plan and design our cities,” Bill Roschen says.
AIA Los Angeles, AIA Baltimore, and other chapters are creating slates of interested architects who want to participate on various boards, councils, and commissions to ensure that the profession is represented in the public-policy decision-making process.
“Some of these positions require the professional knowledge of an architect as a prerequisite, but others don’t—like city council where you typically see more lawyers than architects,” says Klaus Philipsen, FAIA, President of ArchPlan Inc. in Baltimore. “So chapters can proactively work on this: Have a checklist to make sure when elections are held or appointments are made that they have a supply of [architects’] names that they can provide for any position that comes up.”
No matter the level of civic engagement in which one chooses to participate—volunteer activist, appointee, or elected official—the voice of the citizen architect carries influence.
“I think architects are well respected as a profession,” says Matthews, “and we need to get out there and use some of that credibility to help form our urban environment.”