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Architect lectures on values in U.S. design

Victoria Moreno | Monday, November 14, 2011

A rekindling of American values in American architectural design is needed, an architect for the government’s public buildings said in a lecture at Bond Hall on Monday.

Architect Robert Peck, commissioner for the Public Buildings Service at the General Service Administration (GSA) and recipient of the Notre Dame School of Architecture’s Henry Hope Reed Award in March 2011, focused on the exceptional aspects of architecture found in the U.S.

“At the end of the day, I have to ask myself, what is unique about public buildings in America?” Peck said.

Peck drew on his personal history to explain the connection between American values and the country’s public buildings.

“My father was the son of immigrants,” Peck said. “He was poor as they came. In fact, he and his siblings used to take turns on who got to sleep in a bed and who had to push together a couple of chairs to make-shift a bed.”

Peck said his father found refuge in the New York’s public buildings.

“But my father could walk into the New York Public Library and sit in its astonishing Reading Room, a room that is widely regarded as one of architecture’s greatest successes, without hesitation,” Peck said. “You don’t have to be a monarch in America to be in a room worthy of a monarch. In America those spaces belong to you. That day, my father became an American.”

The idea of a national connection to public buildings drives his work, Peck said.

“I believe in the power public architecture and space have to dictate a cultural attitude,” Peck said. “Every design should be done with a purpose. You can see that in Washington [D.C.], where the Capitol and the White House sit at opposite ends of the (National) Mall, connecting the two most powerful branches of government.”

Courthouses, part of the judicial branch of government, are typically constructed with intricate details and grandeur to emphasize the majesty of the law, Peck said.

Peck said the latest trend in architecture, following the nation-wide green movement, strives for more environmentally conscious designs.

“There is a new interest in sustainable architecture,” Peck said.

These “green” efforts range from finding ways to more efficiently use unused office-space to efficiently using a building’s natural environment, like the Tom Maine Building in San Francisco. Peck said the building has no air conditioning, but was constructed with a particular ventilation design that would allow it to stay cool the majority of the year.

Peck said the pyramids, great churches of the Middle Ages and the Parthenon were evidence that the messages and values of society were intrinsically connected to the buildings that were constructed.

“Something that big, that monolithic, clearly says something about the civilization’s values,” Peck said.

At the nation’s beginning, Peck said there was “an explicit dialogue” about the style of architecture that would best reflect the values of the American people.

The founding fathers of the United States chose a style that “spoke to the country’s reverence of classical learning,” Peck said, a decision evident in the early architecture of the nation’s capital.

“The government should not have an official style; rather they should take the best American architects that reflect the values and attitude of society,” Peck said.

When the Capitol and the White House were planned, Peck said the government held design competitions to choose the buildings’ architects.

“Architecture has always been about more than buildings,” Peck said. “Those buildings say something about its society and the people in it.”