Skip to Content

Step Right Up

Think of all the architects you know who have run for public office.

Maybe you know Harvey Gantt FAIA, the oft-cited mayor of Charlotte, North Carolina, who twice ran unsuccessfully against Jesse Helms for the US Senate. He’s been out of office since 1987. Or Richard Swett FAIA, the congressman from New Hampshire and later the US ambassador to Denmark from 1998–2001. He was the only architect to serve in the US Congress in the 20th century. Or maybe you know one of the eight architects — including Massachusetts’ Chris Walsh AIA — who are currently serving as state legislators, according to the AIA.

For a profession that is so deeply committed to the public good, the numbers are puzzling. Certainly, countless architects are working within all levels of government, but their presence hasn’t correlated with elective office beyond local positions such as planning boards and conservation commissions. Yet most architects have some streak of idealism, an inherent optimistic sense that the world can be improved, which is why Howard Roark is an imperfect portrait of the profession: even the most apparently egotistical architects are sometimes simply those with the most unyielding vision of what constitutes the public good.

When it comes to public service, the architecture profession might be even more extreme than the Millennials, whose capacity for volunteer activity has already dubbed them the next “greatest generation.” Among the 18- to 29-year-olds polled in a recent survey by the Harvard Institute of Politics, 69 percent agreed that community service is honorable, and one-third have performed some sort of community service in the past year.

Now consider the architects you know. If your circle of acquaintances resembles mine, it’s pretty hard to come up with anyone, of any age, who hasn’t done some sort of community service, either in the form of public boards and commissions or active participation in a nonprofit. And in most cases, this activity represents lifelong dedication that can’t be discounted as a cynical effort to plump up a résumé or college application.

You can’t be elected if you don’t run. But even if the scrimmage of electoral politics is somehow less appealing than negotiating change orders, architects can still make real, substantive contributions to the civic process. As government struggles at all levels to cut costs, to do more with less, architects must step up to offer their expertise on some of the most pressing issues: housing, economic development, infrastructure, sustainability, energy consumption. It’s time for some creative thinking.

* * *

Close readers of ArchitectureBoston may notice some changes in this issue. “Upfront” is the new moniker for an expanded “front of the book” section that includes opinion and observation pieces in addition to reviews of exhibitions and events. Book reviews and “Site Work” are together called “End Notes” to underscore their function as continued commentary on each issue’s theme. The “At Issue” feature serves as an introductory exploration of the theme. Our design has been tweaked, too, both to accommodate these changes and to allow more editorial and graphic flexibility, such as more effective use of margins for notes and reader resources.

With this issue, we are also launching a new website — — where you can find all our print content as well as exclusive online features. We hope you will visit often, both to comment on stories and to discover new material that will be continually added even after the print version has landed on your desk.

These changes are the most obvious manifestation of a process that began a year ago when we first incorporated some minor editorial and design updates. We anticipate additional fine-tuning in the coming months and welcome your reactions and comments. In this, ArchitectureBoston is much like the city that is its home: the product of an evolutionary process that is never complete.