Storming the Hill (Grassroots 2013)

This post is being made LIVE (or as live as it gets, anyway — turns out that bring a roving correspondent is a lot more difficult than blogging in your pajamas) from Washington DC, where I’ve joined my fellow architects from all corners of the nation for the AIA’s annual Grassroots Leadership Conference. As you’re reading this, nearly 700 of my fellow architects are storming the hill — Capitol Hill, that is — to meet with our elected officials and lobby on the behalf of the AIA, architects in general, and the profession at large.


This is my second year at Grassroots; after the incredible experience I had last year (which I waxed philosophic over in an editorial for AIA-Pittsburgh’s website), a return trip to our nation’s capital in 2013 was almost a sure thing. Why, exactly, is a difficult thing to describe. A friend recently asked me why I liked Grassroots… what do I take from it, what do I think it says about the AIA, etcetera. My answer to those questions became the basis for this post.

First off, this is a conference, not a convention, and as such, it’s much more brisk and compact. The fact that its centered around an event — those Capitol Hill visits — also lends a great degree of focus. We are most definitely here for a reason. And because of that, I feel like I’m doing something *for* the profession… Convention might be about celebrating the practice of architecture, but Grassroots is about advocating for it (and hopefully doing something to improve it). I guess my personality is better suited for the latter.

Also, did I mention that it’s in DC? That alone makes it worth the trip. I’m still just a small-town boy at heart, but its difficult for me to imagine even the most cynical of Americans not being just the teensiest bit overwhelmed by the grandeur of this place. The city is large and sprawling, but still surprisingly walkable, and the height limitation (all the better to appreciate the monuments with, my dear) makes the scale feel quite comfortable. (Although, I must admit that the educated architect in me finds a little disappointment that so many of our monuments to our greatest Americans are so derivative of other civilizations — we’ve basically cribbed from Greece (Lincoln), Rome (Jefferson), and Egypt (Washington)… Which is only part of the reason why Frank Gehry’s proposal for the Eisenhower Memorial was so fascinating… although its been critcized for being overbudget and “experimental” in its use of materials, and its current prospects are looking a little dismal, it would have been an original — and an interesting — addition to all of those columns, domes, and obelisks. But I digress…)

What do I like about it? It’s a very simple thing. I’m bringing nothing to the table but myself and my own experiences (well, that, and a cute little “leave-behind” model of a house), talking to a member of Congress about my own little corner of the world. Putting a human face on an issue. That’s it. A simple thing, but powerful in its implications.

My answer to my friend’s best question — what does Grassroots say about the profession? Hmmmm… that’s a little more of a toughie, but here goes: I think it proves the notion that the profession is openly trying to be bigger than itself. Architects are commonly referred to as “the good guys,” giving of ourselves and our talents to improve the world we live in… Appealing to our elected officials is certainly no exception. Don’t get me wrong here — most of the lobbying is of direct benefit to the profession (ie “…don’t tax small businesses at a higher rate – that would hurt our bottom line…”) but each of those bills would also have an impact on a larger slice of the population-at-large. So the event is about architects really trying to change the world for the better, but in a way that goes beyond design (or talking about design). But it’s more than that, even. There is something very refreshing — exhilarating, even — about taking part in Democracy at its most basic level. This is what our government is all about, the founding principle on which our country was based… to paraphrase Mr. Lincoln, a government of the people, by the people, for the people. It’s not about being an architect — it’s about being an American citizen, one who just happens to have chosen the practice of architecture as his life’s work. And while I am not quite so naive to think my words will have any effect on a politicians’ vote, I’m also not quite so cynical that the significance of the opportunity is lost on me.

It may not be for everyone, but I’ve found myself enjoying Grassroots very much. And if any of you are asking what the AIA has done for you lately, quite frankly, this is it. I’m already looking forward to storming the hill again next year, for my third Grassroots; I hope you’ll consider joining me.