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Newsmaker Interview: Dennis Findley

December 2009

By Lamar Clarkson

Dennis Findley, AIA
Image courtesy Dennis Findley
“Architects in the U.S. are not looked to for leadership the way they were in the early part of the 20th century or the way they still are in European countries,” says Dennis Findley, AIA.

If you follow the prevailing Washington metaphors, the United States sounds like a nation of frustrated drivers. We need a “road map” for everything from the Middle East to Afghanistan to health care. But to the McLean, Virginia, architect Dennis Findley, AIA, we’re actually more like clients with a tricky building project. Instead of a road map, he would like us to consider a napkin sketch.

“It’s that simple description that makes everything make sense,” he says of a quick drawing done on whatever paper is at hand. “It establishes the basis for executing anything from a small home renovation to a $50 million building on a difficult site.”

An alum of Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, Findley has a diverse portfolio that includes an Atlanta natural history museum and an embassy in Algeria. With napkins firmly in hand, he now is aiming to put his architecture skills to new use in Washington. He recently announced his bid for the Democratic nomination for Congress in Virginia’s 10th district.

If Findley, 51, wins, he won’t be the first architect to be seated in the House. New Hampshire Democrat Richard Swett served from 1991 to 1995, and there have been a few other candidates in recent years. Last February, a survey by the American Institute of Architects found that there are at least 850 architects in public service, acting as mayors, city council members, planning commissioners, and the like. In 2006, the AIA started its Citizen Architect program, which supports architects who would like to, or already do, serve in public office.

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Though he has long been interested in the intersection of design and civics, Findley arrived at his current campaign in part via fatherhood. In 1995, when his twin boys were born, he decided that he would be the one to put his career on hold while his wife worked. When he discovered that one of the boys is developmentally delayed, three years became eleven. The couple found that their son’s education was governed by a tangle of laws, some of them contradictory and, they felt, ill conceived.

I recently spoke with Findley, who has since returned to practice as a senior project architect at Bowie Gridley Architects in Washington, DC, about his decision to run for office. Complex legislation, he says, requires clear plans, and architects, as quintessential problem solvers, are uniquely qualified to design them.

Lamar Clarkson: When exactly did you decide to run for office?

Dennis Findley: The seed was planted probably toward the tail end of my time in Cambridge. I read in the Boston Globe that there was a new high rise proposed right by South Station, and the mayor had already picked the color of the glass and was saying, “I want this to be this way, and I want that to be that way.” They were just bonehead decisions.

But that’s how things get done. I certainly didn’t like what was getting done, but it was my first realization that this [the political sphere versus the design process] is where a lot of things that affect people get done.  

When I started staying home with my kids, I realized there are issues that affect families in really unintended ways. I started to realize the unintended consequences of laws. It was about two years ago that it really crystallized for me, and I made the decision last December to run, which began an intensive period of research and writing. Architecture magazines piled up on my desk unread.

LC: What do architects have to offer in Washington?

DF: We’re at the beginning of a tremendous period of change  in this country, and architects are on the front line. We have already been at the vanguard of the green-building movement, and the changes that are going to come—concerns about energy, the environment, planning patterns—are going to involve us directly. Architects in the U.S. are not looked to for leadership the way they were in the early part of the 20th century or the way they still are in European countries, for example. I hope our profession will seize this opportunity because our country needs us.

Architects have creative, solution-focused thinking, tremendous problem-solving ability, and a vision for seeing what can be. Not just for the problems I mentioned, but for issues from foreign policy to the national debt. It’s a way of thinking. 

LC: You have mentioned the idea of a napkin sketch as an ideal conceptual tool. Can you elaborate on that?

DF: I was trying to think about how people see architects and, specifically, moments when I have watched my clients experience a sort of revelation while thinking about a project. It has often been when I’ve grabbed that napkin or that envelope and sketched out the essential elements of a solution.

The debate going on now with health-care reform, for example, is so complex. The House bill alone is more than 1900 pages. We need to distill this very difficult thing down to its essence. What’s the essence of health-care reform? And that’s what architects are very good at—taking all these factors and understanding their implications.

Sometimes that means clearing the board of all the clutter. But you’re still informed by all that you’ve learned. When I was at the GSD, I remember Peter Eisenman said, “The best thing you can do is learn everything you can here and forget it when you leave.” There’s a little bit of truth in that. Be informed, fight, fail, win, have success, and then go out anew. Try to leave the baggage behind.

LC: What are you working on right now?

DF: I’m working on a new high school for Arlington County, Virginia, on the other side of the Potomac from Washington. The new Wakefield High School, at over 300,000 square feet, will replace an aging facility. The student body has a significant number of minorities and first-generation Americans, and its principal has made it one of the highest-achieving schools in the Washington area. 

It is being designed to receive LEED-Silver certification. The project is a great example of integration of green-building technology, and it is exciting to work with a community that takes the stewardship of the environment so seriously.

If this were to be my last project as an architect before taking public office, there could be no more fitting a send-off.

 

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