The French, who know something about the power of buildings to shape culture, have a minister of architecture, but Americans depend on the kindness of senators. Hillary Rodham Clinton comes along at just the right time: Her predecessor, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, has been the only senior government statesman in recent memory devoted to the cause of public architecture, both in Washington and in New York – consistently taking it out of the pork barrel and bureaucratic limbo and putting it on the political agenda at a higher intellectual plane. He championed a new Penn Station and the transfer of Governors Island from the federal government to New York, and led the rebuilding of Pennsylvania Avenue, with its decaying north side, as well as the drive to construct the Federal Triangle. The tangible results of his support for architecture and urban planning, especially his eloquent celebration of the public realm, should rank among his lasting accomplishments.
Our senator-elect may be the second-most-scrutinized human being ever to walk the face of the planet, but few have noticed her longstanding and still-evolving interest and expertise in the built environment. Hillary Clinton has earned stripes as Moynihan’s heir to the nation’s drafting table. Just as Andrew Jackson opened the White House to the public upon his inauguration, Mrs. Clinton – doing what the Clintons do naturally – put it to academic use by staging working seminars in a series of events called Millennium Evenings, their overall theme being “Honor the past, imagine the future.” From early 1998, she hosted nine meetings – each open to the public via C-span and the Web – devoted to architecture, poetry, mathematics, jazz, science, history, feminism, and philosophy (the tenth is scheduled for early January).
The gatherings, which welcomed America’s intelligentsia in from the cold for the first time in two dumbed-down administrations, have ranked among the most inspired moments in White House history. There was Stephen Hawking, with little left of his body but the sly smile and grinning eyes, talking about subatomic uncertainty as it relates to the Chicago Cubs’ chances for a pennant. During the jazz evening, Wynton Marsalis explained the difference between having and playing the blues, and Diane Reeves scatted lyrics – “Blip blip, ityata flamflam” – that would have made Gertrude Stein envious.
Preservationists term the new, unintended use of an old building “adaptive reuse,” and though the White House has not been abandoned or fallen into disrepair, it has long suffered from an overabundance of starch; reprogramming the mansion for rarefied discussions that probe the creative state of the nation took ingenuity and insight. Hillary’s initiative was an act of architecture: The building stayed the same, but she structured a new use for it and expanded its image and functional range. The inaugural Millennium evening in 1998 was the first event Webcast from the White House, and it transformed this closed and guarded precinct into a public forum. Viewers e-mailed questions directly to the White House Website, where the First Lady read them from a computer screen to the guest speakers. Her interpretation of the White House exemplifies her understanding of buildings as cultural. In her introduction to the just-published Saving America’s Treasures, which highlights some 46 buildings, objects, and artifacts among some 700 identified as precarious and endangered, she writes that in protecting and restoring sites like Little Rock’s Central High School, and Brown v. Board of Education’s Monroe School, “we realized that we could preserve more than the physical fabric of our nation’s history. We could, in fact, preserve the rich diversity that is truly America’s story.”
Not for her the Dead White Male bias in American architectural history, or the limestone façades of the established architectural canon. Preservation is an inherently conservative endeavor that Mrs. Clinton has helped radicalize into an activist pursuit. She visited more than 40 sites herself, and the list includes the Breed Street Shul in Boyle Heights, Los Angeles, the last of that community’s 30 synagogues, and the Manzanar Internment Camp, in Inyo County, California, where Japanese were interned during World War II. The cultural landscape in this book is a people’s history rather than the province of the design Establishment. Our new senator understands space in social, cultural, and political rather than exclusively formal artistic terms.
As First Lady, Mrs. Clinton made the most of saving buildings and the ideas they represent, but she was not really in the position of being a patron. That changes now as she enters Congress an elected official representing New York. Pat Moynihan, a guiding spirit to the General Services Administration, the federal government’s builder and landlord, always championed architects over bureaucrats.
The risk for Hillary is that her intelligent stand on preservation may become a security blanket that inhibits her from developing a position about building the architecture of our time. The GSA is just emerging from a conservative period of bland and unnotable buildings and is scoring many surprising successes across the country. It needs further support for a new generation of buildings that will continue to capture the spirit and will of the country as it evolves. It may take a village, but a community doesn’t need to look like a village, and it need not be classical: the best buildings redefine the context or establish their own. The current commissioner of Public Building Services of the GSA, Robert Peck, has admonished its architects to be bold.
It’s difficult to predict where the building opportunities will lie for the next six years. But it is already clear that New York’s harbor is an extremely sensitive site of national importance that demands active oversight, inspired vision, and intergovernmental coordination. Likewise, if the upstate economy is to be reinvigorated, architecture and regional planning will certainly play major roles.
During one White House evening devoted to architecture, President Clinton extemporized that Thomas Jefferson lost the anonymous competition to design the White House, but went on to build the American creed. Mrs. Clinton isn’t an architect, but she has the opportunity to add to her own achievement and carry forward the legacy of her predecessor. When you build, you build culture, and her insight into diversity is a wise foundation on which to construct a building creed. She has honored the past, and she should imagine the future. She should be bold.