In 2014, Storefront for Art and Architecture initiated Letters to the Mayor, an ongoing program designed to highlight the sometimes overlooked relationship between architects and local political authorities, and to facilitate new conversations between them.
“I would like you, Lorenzo, to give this book a place of honor in your library, read it carefully yourself, and make sure that it is widely published,” the scholar-poet Angelo Poliziano wrote to his patron, Lorenzo de’ Medici, the virtual ruler of Florence, in 1486.
The book in question was none other than Leon Battista Alberti’s On the Art of Building in Ten Books, the opening pages of which contained a word of advice to the prince: “The security, dignity, and honor of the republic depend greatly on the architect.” Citizens would be forever grateful, Alberti asserted, if the prince commissioned good buildings and public works. Lorenzo was receptive.
Architects and politicians still need each other today. Architects seek the means to build, while politicians seek the means to physically enshrine their legacy on the places they govern. Of course they frequently have differing goals and visions, and some would prefer to have nothing to do with the other. But the present generation of strong mayors, social activists, and urban design proponents are stirring new convergences of architecture and urban policy.
In April 2014, Storefront for Art and Architecture initiated Letters to the Mayor, a program designed to highlight the sometimes overlooked relationship between architects and local political authorities, and to facilitate new conversations between them. Curated by Eva Franch i Gilabert and Carlos Mínguez Carrasco of Storefront, the program began with an exhibition in New York of 50 letters written by international architects to the leaders of more than 20 cities. Subsequent iterations of the program have opened in Panama City, Mariupol, Bogotá, Taipei, Athens, Mexico City and Buenos Aires (the next iterations will open in São Paulo in July 2016 and Lisbon in October 2016). According to Storefront, “Each letter provides a space of reflection for the architect to present ideas and methodologies and express some of the concerns and desires that might contribute to action within political spheres.” The result is a huge cross-section of architects’ understandings of their role in shaping urban and civic life.
In the spirit of Alberti’s treatise, the contemporary letters are implicitly addressed to other architects as much as to governing authorities. Whether the mayors will actually read or heed any of the letters is an open question. But Letters to the Mayor uses installation design to allude to the dynamics of power, patronage, and creative process. Each gallery where the letters are exhibited includes a symbolic mayoral desk and architect’s table. For instance, in the 2015 installation in Mariupol, Ukraine, designers IZOLYATSIA contrasted a “fat cat” mayor’s desk wrapped extravagantly in faux-fur with a humble wood desk for an architect pushed back in a corner.
In Buenos Aires, Grupo Bondi (Eugenio Gómez Llambi, Iván López Prystajko) combined the architect’s and mayor’s workspace though a kind of overlay: a massive bureaucratic desk is covered with colorful pools of waxy pigment (à la Lynda Benglis’s poured latex rubber works of the 1960s), which drips down its sides and spatters onto the floor. It could be read as the residue of architects’ passionate strivings on behalf of the cities they love, sometimes resulting in nothing more than a lot of spilled ink, effort, and lifeblood. Alternately, it represents the architect’s revenge upon the bureaucrats who have blocked their best ideas from being realized: an orgy of violent color bleeds all over the desk, rendering it useless but finally beautiful, a monument to the frustrated creative process. A third element built into each iteration of Letters to the Mayor, in addition to the letters and desks, is an artistic wallpaper that reflects ideas and issues unique to each city.
The most recent crop of letters – 39 from Mexico City, exhibited on the occasion of the MEXTRÓPOLI festival of architecture and the city – include numerous calls for the protection and enhancement of pedestrian-friendly public space, with corresponding limits to privatization. “We must return to the use of the streets and squares, the collective encounter… in the belief that frequent, consistent and intense use makes the space safe and raises the quality of life for all inhabitants,” Benjamín Romano (L.BR&A) writes. Architect Erika Loana urges the mayor to consider “the deep and complex relationship between Mexico City water,” and the need to rethink hydraulic infrastructure in relation to urban development. Fernanda Canales envisions the conversion of the current airport into an enormous new public space after the new airport is complete. Taking an unexpectedly personal approach, Raúl Cárdenas Osuna (Torolab) asks the mayor an intimate question: “Understanding that the city is a reflection of its citizens but also of its rulers, what would change in yourself as a citizen, to improve the city?” More unexpected still is a proposal by Pablo Kobayashi (Unidad de Protocolos) to abolish the title of architect, which he says has become “obsolete” in today’s climate of do-it-yourself building and urbanism.
It would be interesting to analyze the topic, form, and tone of all the hundreds of letters from the whole program. For the moment, only a few generalizations will have to suffice, accompanied by some selected quotes below. The business letter format prevails, but some authors opted for a more idiosyncratic structure or graphic layout. Some letters are accompanied by drawings or pop-up books (a gallery favorite). Alejandro Hernández Gálvez (Arquine) forced his text into the shape of a map as part of an argument for Mexico City’s identity beyond its administrative definition. Most letters are diplomatic and professional in tone, but there are plenty of examples of more polemical, personal, and speculative writing as well. In an innovative twist on authorship, Ana María León (University of Michigan) crowdsourced her contribution by inviting residents of Guayaquil, Ecuador to submit ideas by Twitter, which she summarized into a six-point bulletin to that city’s mayor.
An evident goal of many contributors has been to entice political leaders to embrace the power of design thinking, and of course to hire architects. “Turn to members of your design and cultural community. We are here to help you… create the healthiest city to live, learn, grow, and innovate,” Marion Weiss (WEISS/MANFREDI) urged the New York’s Mayor Bill de Blasio in 2014. Critic Alexandra Lange, also of New York, made a case for the civic value of design: “Design is not the icing on the cake, or the tourist attraction, but the solving of problems.” Some contributors impugned against banal design. “The city you are forcing on top of the existing one will never be cherished in songs,” architect Zahra Ali Baba stated to the mayor of Kuwait City. Ellie Abrons (EADO) challenged the mayor of Ann Arbor, “Architecture should be rousing. Arousing. When is the last time you felt aroused by a building in our town?” But Suchi Reddy (Reddymade Design) spoke of architecture’s “fourth dimension” – sound – and the importance of creating auditory respites from the cacophony of metropolitan life.
Concerns about equality and what Lefebvre called “the right to the city” have surfaced again and again. “With the all the verdant plans in the works to fix Los Angeles, an alternative future seems possible. But without grander schemes to address [the lack of affordable] housing and protect diversity of all kinds, we may be standing in a future ruin of our own design,” Mimi Zeiger observed in a letter to the mayor of Los Angeles. In a letter addressed to “Potential Future Mayors of Jerusalem,” Nora Akawi wrote, “Citizenship is to be granted to all inhabitants of the city, regardless of their place of birth, where they fled from, or the language they speak.” Foreshadowing the current refugee crisis, Ana Dana Beroš (ARCHIsquad) asked in a letter to the mayor of Zagreb in 2014, “Are we yet again going to witness the division of citizens into 'full' citizens and citizens without political rights?... Or should we all prepare to face destinies of city-less citizens?”
Lamenting the walled-in condition of the West Bank city of Ramallah while visiting San Francisco, Palestinian architect Suad Amiry wrote, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could install a cable car, one cable car, in the streets of Ramallah? It will not only bring happiness to the kids of Ramallah, and the neighboring villages, but it will also help solve one of the many traffic problems that is suffocating our beloved city.” Mitch McEwen (A(n) Office) responded to Mayor de Blasio’s stated desire to make public housing a source of civic pride, noting, “For New York City to be proud of something, it better be impressive. It better have style and a story behind it.” She went on to propose a combination of new construction, retrofits, and converting fenced-in lawns into public parks.
Some architects ventured to pitch specific design ideas, hoping to advance their favorite causes. In one memorable example, Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara (Grafton Architects) asked the mayor of Dublin to “make one small gesture, which could have a big impact,” namely opening the forecourt of the mayoral residence to the public. “Please take away those bollards and parked cars and give this space back to the people… Make this space feel like an urban living room,” they wrote, adding, “You could have two long generous comfortable stone benches, attached to your front walls, heated by solar panels, so the benches are always warm and always dry. A movable shelter could be integrated to protect from wind and rain, even a secret and discreet toilet facility.”
Azra Aksamija (MIT) invited the mayor of Sarajevo to join her group’s campaign to save the threatened national museums, art galleries, and libraries of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Sonja Dümpelmann (Harvard University) made the case to keep the former Tempelhof Airport in Berlin a mostly free open space or “void,” rather than redeveloping it with parks or apartments. And Marisa Yiu (ESKYIU) weighed in against a proposal to limit the growing number of tourists to Hong Kong with a counterproposal to build more elevated walkways, thereby handling the extreme density.
Conceptual and polemical ideas have also appeared alongside the more pragmatic ones. Daniela Fabricius (Princeton University) wryly proposed exiling New York City’s millionaires and billionaires to a replica Manhattan somewhere far away, such as the Greek island of Thasos or the Caspian Sea city of Türkmenbaşy, explaining, “We’ll have so much more space...for New Yorkers. And maybe then the city will once again resemble the vibrant, diverse place where I grew up.” Greta Hansen (Common Practice) delivered a provocative version of the otherwise familiar plug for sustainability, asking de Blasio and other readers to put their money where their mouth is: “Please make things more expensive in New York City. Help us produce things that are good enough to reuse, repurpose, repair, and resell, from the small (bottles) to the big (buildings).” And Keller Easterling (Yale University), in a letter addressed to U.S. mayors in general, subverted the traditional equation of architecture with building: “You know that architects know how to make the building machine lurch forward, but we also know how to put it in reverse. Architects know how to make distended overdevelopment shrink.”Frictions and disagreements can be found in the ideas of the contributing architects, which only highlights the value of Letters to the Mayor as a forum within the field, not only as a means to get politicians’ attention. While Dagmar Richter (Pratt Institute) demanded more consistent traffic enforcement on the streets of New York to keep vehicles from blocking bicycle and bus lanes, Anna Puigjaner (MAIO) raised the opposite concern, that of “excessive control” or “over-regulation” of Barcelona’s urban space. What particularly galled her was the removal of fountains and benches where homeless people might potentially sleep or wash themselves, thereby depriving everyone of public furniture and the open-ended use of space.
A statement buried in architect Zoka Zola’s letter to the mayor of Chicago offers a collective self-portrait of contemporary architects: “We are by default optimists, future-orientated, system-thinkers and space-minded.” Judging by the hundreds of letters that Storefront has attracted to this internationally ambitious exercise – a mark of success in its own right – it would also seem fair to say that architects are political. Or at least, many of their professional and artistic goals are aligned with social and political ideals, which they have taken the time to communicate to politicians, fellow citizens, and colleagues. These letters not only represent a valuable archive of the social conscience of architecture today, but also testify to architects’ desire to claim what Eva Franch calls, “a privilege and a responsibility to articulate and translate the collective aspirations of society, particularly for those who are not able to sit at decision-making tables.”