- The Washington Times - Monday, January 16, 2006

What looks at a glance to be a book written for architects turns out to be that, but something much more. It Is a history of the American architecture profession and how tightly it was wound into the fabric of the nation’s development in the 19th century.

Richard N. Swett, an architect, a two-term member of Congress and former U.S. ambassador to Denmark, begins with an essay urging that architects be civic leaders. He writes, “The purpose of this book is to strengthen the foundations of democratic society by providing examples of individual architects who were able to use their particular brand of leadership to accomplish important work in their communities.”

He proceeds to give us a number of interesting examples, most of which will be new to non-architects. One meets high-minded men and women who sought to improve society by raising the quality of living for large numbers of people.

Some do this by engaging various elements in the community, taking into account many views and working toward consensus to achieve approval for a project. Others are focused on buildings as works of art, and are not necessarily concerned with the views of anyone other than their clients.

Tensions between the architect as community-involved leader and architect as master artist surface again and again in the course of Mr. Swett’s book. He takes us through the early days of the profession, which was centered in New York City (with a Chicago School developing later).

The American Institute of Architects, the professional association, was begun there by a group of well-connected, Europe-schooled architects. Their social awareness prior to the Civil War developed around efforts to abolish slavery. Design leaders, especially Frederick Law Olmstead (of Central Park fame), were among those who founded the Union League Club to promote abolition and support the Union in the war.

Several architects distinguished themselves in war service. Frank Furness won the Congressional Medal of Honor. William LeBaron Jenney, who later pioneered engineering techniques that made skyscrapers possible, was engineer-in-chief at Union Army headquarters in Nashville. Frederick A. Peterson, a Prussian military officer before emigrating to the United States, was a tireless champion of Gen. George McClellan.

After the New York City draft riots of 1863, the Union League Club and its architect leaders mounted a major relief effort for the black community, which had been set upon by rioting groups.

The author takes us through the postwar years and the growth of architecture as its leaders began to campaign for healthier, safer buildings with standards embodied in building codes. Alfred Tredway White pioneered developments of “affordable housing” in the form of “workingmen’s cottage” projects in Brooklyn.

By 1892 there was a movement to get the New York legislature to pass an architects’ licensing law. This pitted architects who saw the profession as an elite one, dedicated to buildings as art, against those who increasingly saw design as integral with many aspects of community development.

The proposed law was vetoed by the governor. After that, the AIA became identified more with the “elitist” approach. It moved its headquarters to Washington, where its executive director devoted most of his time to lobbying for legislation that would bring contracts and veto power over federal projects to its members.

The author writes, “The moment the architecture profession began to detach from its grassroots-oriented civic responsibilities and direct the power of its collective… focus on developing an artistic elite solely engaged in designing structural sculpture, the problem of its diminishing influence on society’s governance accelerated.”

All this began to change with the AIA’s 1919 annual convention. Mr. Swett describes it as providing a postwar “catharsis” for the profession. Speakers emphasized the need for architects to be immersed in community affairs as citizens, not aloof elitists.

Architecture today, the author writes, “is not a solitary pursuit. It is a multilayered process built on coalitions, cooperation and understanding.” At times the book is an exhortation to the profession to build on this definition. For the lay reader, the chapters dealing with the interaction of architects with the life and times of a growing nation will be the most interesting.

The author presents us with the deeds of talented, principled men and women who have made important aesthetic and social contributions to the nation. Most are little known today and he gives them the recognition they deserve.

Peter Hannaford is the author of “The Essential George Washington.”

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