Tom Butt
  E-Mail Forum – 2014  
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  Architects and Politics
November 7, 2014

In most of the stories about this election, I have been identified as many things, but seldom as an architect. I’ve been a part-time politician for less than 20 years, but I’ve been a full-time architect for more than 40 years. Some people think architects make good legislators.
I was initially inspired to run for office by Harvey Gantt, former mayor of Charlotte, NC, who was the keynote speaker at an American Institute of Architects convention in the early 1990’s. Gantt was a pioneer in many respects. The first African American student to be admitted to Clemson University, he graduated with honors in architecture and earned a Master’s Degree in Urban Planning at MIT. He established his successful architecture practice in Charlotte and was elected to the City Council, serving from 1974 to 1983. He was elected to two terms as the first black Mayor of Charlotte from 1983 to 1987. In the 1990s, he ran twice for the United States Senate against Jesse Helms, losing each time.
Gantt often compared architecture and politics. “To succeed in either architecture or in politics,” he said, “one must understand problems at the community level, listen closely, and orchestrate sometimes-disparate wills.”

On understanding community impact, Gantt wrote:

My graduate school work was at MIT in planning, which I wanted to match with my architectural background. I was curious about how cities developed, and not just the physical aspects of cities that architects are inclined to be interested in, but the socioeconomic aspect of how cities develop. I wanted to understand what caused some parts of them to be great, and others not so good. I wanted to understand how cities allocate resources, how they handle budgets, and so on. I often wondered if we could ever design cities in such a way that everyone would have a chance to enjoy a better quality of life without regard to the circumstance of where you lived.

Gantt compared finding the right design solution to consensus building in politics:

In architecture, when we are successful with our design, we are good because we interpreted very clearly the program of the owner. Oftentimes the owner is not a single person, but the people who will be using those facilities. We learn something in the programming process about what the needs of the client might be. In our office, we spend a lot of time interacting with both the client and the surrogate client (the people who are going to use the buildings), and we come out of that process with a mix of goals that we have to put together to create the program and then develop the design.

In politics it’s very much the same way. I have to work with Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, people who might be a little bit more myopic, focused only on the concerns of the district represented, and representatives with more of a bird’s-eye view of the city. And as a politician, having to blend lots of different ideas, particularly when I was mayor, reminded me of developing good programs for clients. In either case, you have to have the skill of hearing all these voices and then crafting some kind of solution. As an architect, you try to bring all these factors together for a resolution in a three-dimensional context.

Finally, Gantt discussed the coalescence of disparate wills:

In design, we put together different materials to create this harmonic whole. In politics, we tend to put together people, and we work with them so they will buy into a particular solution to a problem. So, in either case, we’re always working hard orchestrating the will and the desire of people.

In an article, “What Architects Can Bring to the Politics of Civic Engagement,” Richard Swett, FAIA, sounded a similar theme. “ Architects are masters at creating order out of chaos. However, the personal and professional skills required to weave this tapestry are rarely discussed in the books about architects.”

When Congressman Raymond Dehn of Minnesota, an architect, was running for office, he asked:

What would the political spectrum be like if we had more architects in charge?

  • Architects know budgets, and are required to meet them.
  • Architects are well versed in juggling multiple priorities and solving complex problems.
  • Architects resolve conflicts more often than making them.
  • Architects make beautiful things -- At least the good ones.


My firm, Interactive Resources, may be the only architectural firm that includes two mayors on its staff of architects.

Architect Tim Banuelos, who  is on the Pinole, CA, City Council, is serving as mayor of Pinole this year and was just reelected, being unopposed for another term. Tim has been a licensed architect for 30 years and served on the Pinole Planning Commission during 2005-2009 and the Design Review Board in 2006.

Both of us are what the American Institute of Architects call “citizen architects.”

The American Institute of Architects (AIA) believes that society and the profession benefit from civically engaged architects, and that these members should be actively supported at all levels of service. The AIA Citizen Architect program seeks to assist architects that are currently or would like to be civically engaged in elected and appointed positions, and provides these members with programming, networking opportunities, and resources. Explanation and Justification As part of a commitment to increasing the number of architects running for elected office or serving on appointed boards/commissions, the American Institute of Architects National Board of Directors passed a resolution honoring and supporting “citizen architects.”

The Member Outreach Subcommittee of the Board Advocacy Committee also developed a definition of “Citizen Architect,” which follows: “The Citizen Architect uses her/his insights, talents, training and experience to contribute meaningfully, beyond self, to the improvement of the community and human condition. The Citizen Architect stays informed on local, state and federal issues, and makes time for service to the community. The Citizen Architect advocates for higher living standards, the creation of a sustainable environment, quality of life, and the greater good. The Citizen Architect seeks to advocate for the broader purposes of architecture through civic activism, writing and publishing, by gaining appointment to boards and commissions, and through elective office at all levels of government.”

Earlier this year, I was recognized by the California Council, American Institute of Architects with its 2014 Lifetime Achievement Award for  “…outstanding contributions to the improvement of the built environment.” The award stated, “Butt has been a Citizen Architect  for the last 40 years and an AIA member since 1973. His active involvement in the political and civic arenas is considered admirable and inspirational. One reviewer commented, ‘He reached out to society while simultaneously showing the relevance of the architecture practice.’”
So let’s hear it for architects and encourage more of them to bring their education and skills to public service and making a better society beyond the buildings they design.