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Ten questions for Chris Walsh AIA of Massachusetts

In November, Democrat Chris Walsh AIA won the 6th Middlesex District seat on the Massachusetts House of Representatives. As one of three AIA members nationwide to win election to their state legislature for the first time, Walsh recently sat down for a BSA Q&A on his campaign experiences and vision for his public service.

Why did you decide to run for office?

Over the years, I have been involved in many ways at the local level in Framingham: I was a town-meeting member; a member of the planning and zoning committee, the government study committee and capital budget committee; chair of the historic district commission; and a library trustee. I’ve done a lot of volunteering over the years.

Framingham has a particular issue that sparked my imagination. Some years ago, I got together with a bunch of other architects to run a charrette for downtown Framingham, which has struggled to stay viable in the face of competition from the Natick Collection and other malls. We had some really good ideas, but it was hard to change people’s mindset about the downtown area. It wasn’t so much that the ideas couldn’t be realized; it was just difficult to get people to see beyond what they were experiencing today, which they blamed on factors that weren’t necessarily very big obstacles. I realized that part of the problem was my inability to carry this “bucket of ideas” up the ladder to a place where people could get excited about them. In cities like Boston, you have the Boston Redevelopment Authority and professionals—designers in many ways—who are in that position where they can get people excited about new ideas. But a lot of towns don’t have that, including Framingham. I saw a gap. There are so many public solutions that are design-oriented, and it is really frustrating not to see them advance.

Also, as I got involved with the AIA Massachusetts Legislative Affairs Committee, I saw that legislation profoundly affecting the building profession was being crafted largely by people who didn’t understand the implications for the industry. Architects are working in a business that’s in a huge flux. The building industry is changing dramatically, and a lot of those changes are driven by legislation.

Architects want to be the knowledge broker—an honest party who people come to for information. The hazard when you are that knowledge resource is that the one point of view that doesn’t get expressed is your own. Someone needs to step up to the plate and ask, “Where are we headed with this profession from a legislative standpoint? And are the laws we are putting in place helping us or hurting us?” I suppose my inspiration was my belief that a place at the table is really important. It didn’t have to be me, but architects should have people representing them in that position. They need a voice.

Was this your first time running for election?

I’ve run for several local offices and ran in 2008 for the state representative spot in a three-way primary race. We put together a good, solid grassroots campaign that really did very well (139 votes shy of winning). It became apparent that it often takes several tries to be successful and that the first run is all about learning what you don’t know about campaigning. It’s also about having to clarify your thoughts, defend your points of view and present that all in a coherent way to the public—not unlike presenting a project to a client.

Will you continue to practice as an architect while serving?

No, I need to take a sabbatical from architecture to do this. That may be why many architects are hesitant to step into politics on a larger level. The time commitment is pretty outstanding.

How does an architecture background help in public service?

The skill set an architect develops matches up really well with the skill set of a legislator. You are asking a legislator to be a generalist who looks at many different kinds of issues. Well, architects are typically thrown into situations where they have to solve problems that might not fall under their particular area of expertise. Both legislators and architects have to come to a problem fresh to find the solution that will serve all its conflicting pieces.

Architects also are used to compromising along the lines of “The structure demands this, so we have to do that.” It is not a winner-take-all attitude that architects bring to the table; they are facilitators for the bigger picture. Architects are almost naturals at the public process: They are used to paying attention to detail while working for a common goal with a radically diverse group of people, such as contractors, owners and building officials.
Finally, architects are trained to always think about the qualitative as well as the quantitative. The whole idea of government is to make people’s lives better. But the qualitative aspect can be forgotten in legislation. We really need to ask with each piece of legislation, “Is this really solving the problem that essentially affects individuals? And is it making lives better?”

What are the top issues facing your constituents?

My district is located along the 128/495 ring. It’s a hugely successful area. The economic numbers show an $11 billion payroll, yet there are still these urban pockets that are downtrodden and destitute. We need to think about how to help these places realize their assets. There is a real cause for optimism for many of these older urban areas. They fall right into the scheme of what many architects talk about: transit-oriented development and smart growth.

What are the top initiatives on your agenda?

Obviously, there’s budget. Massachusetts had a huge drop in budget tied to a drop in the economy. We have to be very careful that the decisions we make consider the qualitative as well as the quantitative. The first thing we have to do as legislators is put some life rings out there. If some programs disappear, the quality of our people’s lives is going to go way down.

We also have to look at long-term issues. There are structural deficits in our finances that are pretty spooky in terms of how we get our money for what we want to do. For example, education is hugely important. But we are educating our children based on the property taxes in each community, and it’s not working. We have to look hard now at how we fashion how we’ll fund services in the future.

How will you measure your success at the end of your first term?

I have worked in architecture long enough to remember the Faneuil Hall area before Benjamin Thompson and Associates (BTA) reworked it. It was an interesting market area, but it didn’t have that “third place” sensibility about it. BTA’s project was pioneering in how it took a historic market area and truly transformed the role it played in the city. Today, several urban areas in my district have let the retail action go elsewhere and are now left with areas that townsfolk don’t know what to do with. People are depressed by this and don’t see these pockets as an opportunity to create something even more exciting. I would count myself very successful if I can help get the rethinking of these urban areas moving forward. It would make an enormous difference to the area, both economically and socially.

What role can government play in getting the building industry working again?

There’s a huge role it can play, which we had hoped would happen with the federal stimulus package. Unfortunately as “shovel-ready,” many of those projects came in under the architect level. There was no question that the sewer and road work needed to be done. However, government needs to better consider where we are pumping money into the system. Many of us would like to see more public transportation or improvements in rapid transit or a rethinking of our model of how we move people place to place.

The government can also help or hurt in terms of how the code works. If you look at a typical building project right now, there’s a lot of confusion about what you’re actually required to do and how the whole system works. There’s push and pull between the building inspector and the fire marshal, and conflicting accessibility requirements. Architects have been put in the liability chain in a fairly big way without being able to affect in a major way what the liabilities are or how they are approached. That’s why you see a lot of architects backing away from the traditional role of the architect and going into subspecialties.

Was the AIA helpful to your campaigning efforts? Why or why not?

The first time I ran for office, I spent a lot of energy trying to get the architect establishment to endorse me. It was wasted energy. They were very hesitant about actually supporting any candidates because they worried their role would be politicized. They said, “What if you don’t win? Will we be punished by the people who do win?”
It was enormously frustrating. As someone who has been very involved in town politics and other people’s campaigns, I thought that view was very naive. You have optometrists who think nothing of getting involved and supporting candidates on all sides of issues because they want to make sure people know who they are when there is legislation that’s important to them. I don’t want to be cynical, but there seems to be reluctance among architects to do that. Architects want people to know who they are without overly committing.

What could the AIA and its local chapters do to help citizen architects?

The AIA could do more to train architects on how to campaign. Although an architect’s skill set matches up well with that of a great legislator, often that skill set doesn’t work for campaigning at all. Architects can have trouble asking clients for money for work they’ve already done. On a campaign, they have to go to people out of blue and ask, “Will you donate to my campaign?” It’s enough to give you facial twitches. And going to rallies where you are trying to get volunteers fired up to wave signs is very un-architect-like. But that is what campaigning is.
I realize in retrospect that asking for an endorsement wasn’t necessarily asking for the right thing. But I do think the AIA and BSA could do more to help their members recognize that having architects in office is important to what happens in the commonwealth and the nation. Although the people involved in the Legislative Affairs Committee were very supportive of what I am trying to do, I didn’t see the broader support you’d get in lot of other professions.

People may be extremely friendly at the State House, but there is a lot of pushing and shoving in a competitive way. It’s a silly metaphor, but in basketball, no one stops to ask for permission while they are driving to the basket—and legislation is a little more aggressive than that. Architects may want people to respect them for their thoughts, but truthfully that academic approach is useful only when you’re talking about other people’s problems. It doesn’t help when you are talking about your own.

I hope we can demonstrate to architects that it is possible to successfully run for office and that it helps having architect legislators. Hopefully, people will see the differences between having an architect in the State House and not. And I hope more architects step up because I think architects have a lot to give in terms of the quality of life for all of those living in the commonwealth.

Genevieve Rajewski is a Boston-based freelance writer who covers science, nature, animal issues, travel, food and passionate people for acclaimed publications such as Smithsonian, Washington Post Magazine, and The Boston Globe. Her website is