AIA 2012 Convention Special: HUD Secretary Donovan Exhorts Architects to Embrace Community Involvement

Shaun Donovan, Hon. AIANY, gave Friday morning’s keynote.

Daniel Fox

Donovan talks backstage with Rick Bell, FAIA.

Courtesy Rick Bell

Event: Keynote Presentation: The Honorable Shaun Donovan, Hon. AIANY
Location: Walter E. Washington Convention Center, Washington, DC, 05.18.12
Speaker: Shaun Donovan, United States Secretary for Housing and Urban Development (HUD)
Organizer: AIA 2012 National Convention

Shaun Donovan, Hon. AIANY, has a message for architects: listen closely, and listen well. Communities know what they want from their built environment, and it is our responsibility as designers to translate their desires and aspirations into an enlivening constructed reality.

Donovan, current Secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), is a trained architect himself, but his philosophy was forged in the crucible of the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD). As Commissioner of HPD, Donovan observed the crumbling decay of 1960s urban renewal firsthand. The failure of those projects generally began the moment that designers imposed their wills, like demi-gods, upon hapless residents.

Fortunately, Donovan was also in the position to seek and implement novel planning strategies and techniques in New York. Under his leadership, the old designer/user relationship was inverted. Deep community involvement in re-development proposals became a central tenet of HPD’s planning philosophy.

Indeed, Donovan alluded to a number of successful projects constructed in the Bronx and Brooklyn utilizing the new model – those collaborations between the architectural profession and community development corporations married the best of community action with the best of private enterprise.

One such example is Via Verde, the New Housing New York Legacy project. As reported in e-Oculus on 05.03.10 at Via Verde’s groundbreaking, “In 2004, AIANY sponsored a competition called ‘New Housing New York.’ With City Council, City University of New York, the NYC Departments of Housing Preservation and Development, City Planning, and Buildings, it solicited proposals for affordable, sustainable housing in three New York neighborhoods. The ideas competition was so successful that two years later, the Legacy Project followed.”

Residents requested a healthy building, and the Grimshaw/Dattner Architects design team responded by giving tenants access to natural light, cross ventilation, and terraced roofs for garden plots. Nearly two years later, the building was completed. The success of such prototypes has led HUD to embrace similar planning principles on a national scale.

Since the least sustainable communities were the hardest hit by the recession, HUD is directing its efforts toward stabilizing fragile districts with already inherent qualities of community and place. The hope is that granular improvements at the neighborhood level will agglomerate to revitalize ailing cities such as Cleveland and Detroit. Interestingly, the federal government views the arts, and thus design and architecture, as powerful vehicles for redeveloping faltering metropolitan areas.

According to Donovan, citing the work of AIANY and its executive director, Rick Bell, FAIA, the way forward for the profession is clear: build what they really want, build it beautifully, and they will come. Listen to the varied voices of the population, and give these opinions equal weight. Design neighborhoods of quality and character, with human scale and interest, and citizens will embrace and love these places for generations.