A farewell to presidents
If this were enough of a recollection, it would have everything in it.* It would have Jim Lawrence taking me to lunch at the Tavern Club to convince me to run for the presidency of the BSA and my saying I didn’t have the requisite diplomatic skills, to which “gentleman” Jim replied in that patrician New England voice, “Precisely!” and Earl Flansburgh FAIA Emeritus saying, “Peter, it doesn’t matter whether you want to, you have to.” And confident that I was unelectable, I ran and then I won and then thought, What do I do now?
It would have Yu Sing Jung FAIA Emeritus and Buzz Brannen FAIA Emeritus buying the Architects’ Building the morning that I became president because the BSA didn’t have the cash, and my thanking them that evening and promising to pay them back, and everybody laughing… and I still don’t know if we ever did. We hadn’t by the time I left.
It should have me telling Jean Paul Carlhian FAIA Emeritus my idea for an evening critique of designs and our discussing what it should be called. “It cannot be a conférence, as it is a discussion. It cannot be a soirée, as we will keep our clothes on. It must be a conversation.” Of course that was all in French, and “Conversations” it became. It would have many evenings and everyone in “black tie” and looking beautiful and hard criticism, but always civil, never cruel, and wonderful discussion that wandered everywhere but was always about Architecture with a capital A, and walking out into the dark and cold, you felt good about being an architect. It would have Jane Weinzapfel FAIA, her hard hat under her arm, excusing herself to go to an MBTA site meeting in the Park Street subway tunnel. Site meetings happened when the trains weren’t running, but I’ll bet few showed up in a perfect black dress and heels. It would have Harry Cobb FAIA bringing his Boston courthouse design up from New York City and getting beat about the ears for the corner entrance (Warren Schwartz FAIA: “Didn’t we all get past that in third-year design?”), but Harry didn’t change it, and he should have.
It must have the excitement and struggle with the design of the Architects’ Building and Brigid Williams AIA’s endless patience and her diplomatic skills and ability to synthesize much input and still keep order. And a fool of a consultant on bookstores who adamantly maintained that a cafe and a bookstore could never coexist, and so the Architectural Bookstore ultimately failed, and has that consultant ever looked around at every other bookstore-cafe? And where is he now? But for a while, the bookstore and the first-floor exhibitions were going, and Architecture was celebrated on the street.
If a recollection is complete, why should it not have meetings with the Boston Redevelopment Authority, ridiculous though they were? Absurd arguments, such as even though there never had been glazing originally on the ground floor of the Architects’ Building, if there would have been, even though there hadn’t been, it would have had small panes. But, gentlemen, in fact, there wasn’t. Yes, but… and, finally, the confrontation with the stubborn architect, the BSA representative no less, being resolved only when I offered to go on TV and trash one of his buildings… so perhaps Jim Lawrence was right?
Any recollection, if it is complete, must have hilarious meetings with Richard Fitzgerald in which nothing of consequence was ever discussed because we had tacitly agreed that he ran the BSA—as he always did—and I celebrated design, but we both loved shaggy dog stories like the one about Count Dracula’s visit to Venice… And board meetings (did we have lunch?) where much that seemed serious and important was discussed, debated, approved, but what? Does anyone recollect? So topical, so ephemeral; only design is forever. And the grumbles when my office won yet another design award, and, as president, I signed my own certificate, but, what the hell, I wasn’t on the jury.
A recollection, if it is to be true, should recognize that it was a presidency often imperious, intolerant, impatient, undemocratic, certain that art is not made by committees. But was that a surprise? And there were truly great people like Jim Lawrence and Chuck Redmon FAIA and Lee Cott FAIA and Richard who were diplomatic, who unruffled feathers, who smoothed and soothed and made it work. And much was accomplished.
There must be the parties, many parties, and all wonderful: Parties in Washington, DC, in that penthouse (lowercase “p”), and St. Louis and New York City and even Boston. The party in St. Louis coinciding with a high school prom in the adjacent hotel ballroom, all the girls in shiny satin dresses and the boys in tuxedos with ruffled pink shirts and Jim Crissman FAIA’s delight in their energy and exuberance and youth. A car and a driver called in drenching rain in New York, where taxis are water soluble, to deliver much of the BSA board, dry, to one party and another car and driver in St. Louis to another party, cool. If you haven’t been in the Midwest in summer, even early summer, you don’t know what hot is.
If this had been enough of a recollection, it would have had everything in it. Of course it could not, but perhaps it gave some sense of our pride and self-confidence and delight in being architects and the joy in what we were doing and the elation of good times and our celebration of Design; 1988 to 1989 was a golden year and then it was over and will never be that way again, but it was fun. I was lucky.
*Apologies to E. Hemingway.
Peter Forbes FAIA, 1989 BSA president