American Architectural Foundation President Bogle On Value of Design & Importance of Place

June 17, 2006

Foundation uses three institutes to teach elected and grassroots leaders about the power of design.

TPR is pleased to present this interview with Ron Bogle, Washington, D.C. based President and CEO of the American Architectural Foundation, in which he opines on the central role of design in creating livable places. According to Bogle, architecture has the power to change our lives and transform communities. For this reason, and because many elected officials, grassroots leaders and other decision makers do not have design experience, the AAF has created extensive programs to educate mayors, school officials and community leaders about design issues.

Ron, as president and CEO of the American Architectural Foundation, could you begin by you articulating the foundationís mission?

The mission of the American Architectural Foundation is broad, but it gives good guidance to our programs. Verbatim, the mission of the AAF is to educate people about the power of architecture to improve lives and transform communities. What we do with that is the real challenge. How to take that broad directive and turn it into programs that have true meaning has been the interesting part of what Iíve been doing the last two or three years.

It appears that ACF has created three broad programs to support and advance your mission: a Mayorís Institute, a Great Schools By Design Institute and a Civic Leadership Institute. Please elaborate on each one- their goals, target audience and design.

Iíll start by saying that, as an organization, we believe that architecture and design matter. They are not lofty theoretical issues, but practical issues. Day to day, local community leaders are making decisions that shape their communities As a result, we want to be a resource to local leaders and assist them with making better decisions.

The Mayorís Institute on City Design is actually a program thatís been in place for about 20 years. It was originally started by the National Endowment for the Arts. Mayor Joe Riley of Charleston, the longest standing mayor in America, is sort of the father of the Mayorís Institute. He is also known for having a vision for Charleston and building one of the great American cities in a very purposeful way.

The Mayorís Institute on City Design is a partnership of the NEA, the US Conference of Mayors and AAF. We are the managing partner of the program. Itís grounded on some very simple principles. One is that the mayor really is the bully pulpit for good design. Mayors, however, often come to office without a strong sense of the power that they have to help shape the design of their community. Is the Mayorís Institute a hands-on program for electeds?

We reach 48 mayors a year through six institutes. They bring their design challenges to the institute. We assemble a group of 8 to 10 national leaders in designóarchitects, community planners, economists and othersóand we spend three days together in a kind of facilitated brainstorming session. Itís not a design charrette, where weíre drawing things. Rather we are listening to the mayors describe their problems, then working with them to offer strategies and ideas on how to solve them. Many of the mayors have commented that it really helped them to discover not only more creative ideas for approaching the challenges theyíre dealing with, but also helped them to understand that they could have greater influence on city design than they realized. The Mayorís Institute is a very successful program, and it has served as a basis for our other programs that we have initiated.

Describe AAFís Great Schools by Design program for School Districts?

When I took over as president of the AAF two and a half years ago. We were a little light on programs. I had just finished ten years on my local board of education where I dealt with a lot of school design issues. Using the Mayorís Institute as a model, we organized Great Schools by Design, where we work directly with school districts on school design issues in their communities. Weíre also engaging all of the stakeholders in school design in ongoing forums, seminars and summits in order to elevate discussion.

The need for this program is perhaps greater than for the Mayorsí Institute, because weíre spending about $30 billion a year on schools in the US, and a lot of districts just donít have a great deal of accumulated experience and knowledge about school design and current transit school design. There are lots of people involved nationally, but getting people to interact, to move beyond working in silos, to get educators and architects talking together about what schools of the future should look like and then move those new ideas into the marketplace for implementation, is challenging. Our first institute is in a couple of months.

Weíre conducting this interview in San Diego at the National School Boards Association meeting, where youíve just moderated a panel with Concordia, New Schools Better Neighborhoods and the Chief Operating Officer of St. Paulís School District. What was the subject matter of your NSBA panel?

This was a part of a strategy to advance some of the leading-edge thinking about school design. We had 100 to 150 school board members in the room, and most of them are, or will be, involved in school construction in their districts. What we wanted to do today was inspire and informóto inspire people by showing them that you donít have to do things the same old way, And to inform district leaders as to the strategies and tactics that they can take back to their communities.

From the responses, it seems like we opened some eyes today and achieved our goal. I suppose itís a bit of a missionary effort, David. We want people to know that they donít have to build schools the way they have been built them for the last 100 years. We want them to know that if you really want to change what goes on in schools and affect whatís going on in communities, youíve got to create schools that are different from those that have been created in the past.

Inspiring people to think differently is difficult, and frankly, as a former school board member I can tell you that school districts are often pretty risk averse and donít want be out on the leading edge. If we can show them that different approaches have been implemented in other places, it can help. That is part of what today was about.

The third AAF program you mentioned is your Civic Leadership Design Institute. Please elaborate.

Architecture in the public realm is generally a collaborative process, and it involves people from many of different areas. There are very few people in the public realm who have unilateral decision-making power, unlike the private realm where the CEO of a company alone might decide what the corporate headquarters will look like.

Given, then, that the process is collaborative, we are trying to reach all the decision makers: the mayors, those involved with education, community leaders and volunteers, chamber of commerce board members, symphony board members, and planning commissioners who have to make decisions about planning and design and may notólike mayors and school board leadersóhave the experience or education to deal with them. We use the Civic Design Leadership Institute to reach this third audience and inform them about good design, so their decisions will be better decisions for their communities.

Many community leaders approve of the idea of place-making, yet in practice give short-shrift to the concept because of cost or the preceived need to collaborate with others. What is the value does place-making add to development?

This is difficult; because when you talk about this sort of thing it can sound lofty, theoretical, and maybe even a little unrealistic. We need to press on, though, and think about these types of questions, because if we donít deal with this issue of place, we canít get to some other issues.

Let me try and speak to this issue. Cities, towns, and villages are defined in a lot of different ways. If you live in a place, though, and you spend your life there, itís the place that you identify with.
Itís the local school that your grandfather, mother, father and you went to. Itís the neighborhood church or the corner store. Itís the way that a boulevard is laid out. Itís the kinds of things that weíve become not merely familiar with, but that begin to define us and shape us. Weíre at risk of losing that in our culture.

We tend to think about buildings the way we think about a lot of products: disposable. Weíre replacing them with big boxes on the fringe of neighborhoods. Then we have to build eight lanes roads to get out to them. The little store that you grew up with in your neighborhood is gone because it canít compete. The little neighborhood school that used to be down the street was closed because the district decided to build a larger school that no one can walk to because itís located on the fringe of the neighborhood.
Place is really about the things that we come to know about where we live on the personal level but also at another level itís also what differentiates one location from another. You can drive down through any American city virtually and find a place that is so similar to every other city that you donít know the difference between one town and another. And we all know them, the strip malls on the fringe of the community, the big box stores so after a few more generations how do we differentiate between your hometown and somebody elseís hometown? How do you connect to the legacy of our personal histories? How do we remember from one generation to the next without having place as the connecting point? Itís a tough issue because sometimes preservation is difficult. Saving a historic school that is nestled in the heart of a neighborhood that served four or five generations of families has intrinsic value that cannot be measured in economics alone, but, then again, we live in the real world so economics is an issue. We need to find ways to make preservation work, though.

As an example, the AAF is housed in a building in Washington D.C. that was built in the 1780s. It was the first house in D.C. Itís not a house anymore. Now itís an office, and between 1780 and today itís been a house, a flop-house, a dorm, and a headquarters for a national association. It even served as the home of the President for a while after the British burned down the White House in 1814.

And the significance of your examples is?

It means that architecture is fluid. It can adjust. It can bend. It can contort. It can be many different things, but it connects us to our history, our personal history, our national history, and if we lose that, what else are we losing?

When I go back to my old neighborhood in Oklahoma City and drive by my old elementary school, which is now a community center, it serves as a link to my family history. Itís where my mom and dad went to school. Itís where my grandparents went to school and so my personal history is tied up in that place and all the memories that we have of our life. If that place is gone, somehow those memories are gone too. So place is fundamentally important.

As we close, Ron, I would like to focus on the process of bringing people with different agendas together to work on creating ďplace.Ē Talk about your experiences doing this as you have gone around the country representing the AAF.

I think most people donít believe that they can shape decisions in their communities about buildings and design. We donít think about design as something that happens today Ė itís something that happened before. Not only citizens feel this way, but people in authority, like the school board. School boards have tremendous influence on decisions about school placement and design. Sometimes leaders donít understand that they have significant input. I didnít quite understand it at first, and I donít think that a lot of other leaders do either. The community brings its combined memory about whatís important and whatís valuable and if you can engage citizens for example regarding the design of a school, then youíre representing the communityís wishes in terms of how it wants to be, what it wants to look like, how it wants to feel about itself.

There are some groups that advocate for place very well. The National Trust for Historic Preservation are great advocates, but if we look to older cultures in Europe and elsewhere, I think we find that they have done a much better job.

The mayoral runoff election in Los Angeles will take place on May 17. If you were writing an open letter to both candidates about the importance of the place-based agenda youíve just been describing, what would you write?

I would paraphrase comments Iíve heard from Mayor Joe Riley of Charleston and tell the candidates that Mayors have an incredible opportunity to shape their communities. A hundred years from now, people will not remember whether or not you put together a particularly brilliant budget. If, however, if you participated in creating transformational ways of thinking about how your community worked, how your schools related to neighborhoods or how the boulevards connected places within your community, or if you preserved an important town square or historic structure, then you may be remembered 100 years from now. Those are the things that serve not just a generation or two but servemany, many generations. To Mayor Riley, those are some of the most important contributions mayors can make.