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Searching for a Non-Architect... of the Capitol?

August 13, 2007

by Barbara J. Saffir

Congress is considering a non-architect for the nation’s most visible architecture post, the Architect of the Capitol (AOC), and that’s riling the American Institute of Architects (AIA).

“It’s a really big slap in the face to the profession of architecture in this country to select someone other than an architect to be Architect of the Capitol,” says Marshall Purnell, FAIA, the AIA’s 2008 president-elect. Purnell is heading the institute’s lobbying effort to get a licensed architect appointed to the congressional job, which oversees 2,200 employees, a $450 million budget, and pays $163,700 in annual salary—some $1,600 more than members of Congress make. The job includes everything from overseeing upkeep on the Capitol building, to managing the Senate cafeteria.

The AOC slot’s been empty since February, when Alan M. Hantman, FAIA, retired at the end of a 10-year term. Under his leadership, the cost of the new Capitol Visitor Center more than doubled to $600 million and the project’s opening date fell three years behind schedule. Though some of these problems stemmed from changes to the building’s program following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Congress was compelled to seek someone with more experience overseeing such projects. The AIA contends that the candidates it recommended, who included two women and two men, have the necessarily qualifications. It also maintains that the AOC needs the design, construction management, and historic preservation skills that only a licensed architect can offer.

For its part, though, Congress says that the AIA’s candidates fail to make the grade. “While the AIA has criticized Congress¹ interest in interviewing non-architects, they have not forwarded the kind of architects with experience in managing large projects; in overseeing large campuses; and in the kind of political acumen that¹s needed for the role,” says Howard Gantman, staff director for the Senate Committee on Rules & Administration, which is chaired by senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).

That committee, along with the Architect of the Capitol Commission—which includes Feinstein and other Congressional leaders—is charged with filling the vacancy. After consulting with the AIA, it hired the headhunter Heidrick & Struggles International, and then sent three names to the White House. President George Bush, who is un-obliged to follow these recommendations, will chose the new AOC and then a majority of the Senate must approve his selection. The AIA believes that two of the Congressional candidates are architects, but that the top choice is not.

Although the AIA is not releasing the names of its suggested candidates—Congress and the White House are also remaining mum—last week it sent a letter to congressional leaders urging them to make their choices public.

“The Architect of the Capitol is responsible for the expenditure of millions of dollars of public funds, and oversees the design, maintenance and operation of public facilities and grounds,” the AIA’s CEO Christine McEntee, herself a non-architect, said in the letter. “Therefore, we believe that the public has a compelling interest in, and right to know, who the nominees are so that the public can provide informed advice to their elected leaders about the selection process.”

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In addition to writing Congress and its own members, the AIA has authored articles for press agencies, mounted an online lobbying campaign, and started a petition. Paul Mendelsohn, the AIA’s vice president of Government and Community Relations, says that the petition contains roughly 4,000 signatures so far.

The AIA has also established a blog on its Web site. The sentiment of many bloggers is captured by AIA member Gerald Lee, from Oakland, Calif., who wrote that he is unable to understand why Congress “had to look outside the field of architecture to find a suitable nominee” when America has 112,650 architects. “That is ludicrous,” Lee added. 

The current acting-AOC, Stephen T. Ayers, as well as the previous two, Hantman and George M. White, are AIA members. But the statute creating the AOC position does not require an architectural background—and in fact the job has been held by a number of non-architects. America’s first AOC, William Thornton, was a self-taught architect originally educated as a physician. President Dwight Eisenhower’s appointee J. George Stewart was an engineer, contractor, and member of Congress.

When the next AOC is picked, which could occur any time within the next several months depending on when Bush makes his selection, he or she will be the eleventh person to hold this position.

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