Last month I participated as a juror in Gensler’s annual internal design review. As you would expect of such a big firm, the projects came in many different sizes, shapes, programs, and locations. Office buildings, car dealerships, factories, and condominiums, in the U.S., China, the Middle East, and Europe. As is Gensler’s custom, out of all the award winners, we picked one project as the best of the best: a clinic for Cook County Health and Hospitals System in Chicago. It brings rigorous design to an often undistinguished building type and dignity to an underserved community.
The jury met on a Thursday and Friday in Washington, D.C. Not surprisingly, given the locale and the fact that the first presidential debate was scheduled for the following Monday, the election was the topic of much conversation during breaks and meals. I didn’t expect the inverse to happen, but Monday night, as I watched the candidates spar over immigration, race, gender, poverty, and the role of government, the jury kept coming to mind, and especially that hospital project.
In a rare area of agreement, both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton spoke in favor of infrastructure spending, which should warm the hearts of architects nationwide. While Trump didn’t mention his favorite initiative, the Great Wall of Mexico, he colorfully described our nation’s airports as “like from a Third World country.” Anyone who has flown through Orlando recently might agree.
Clinton has proposed spending $275 billion on infrastructure. Trump’s plan would cost $500 billion—a figure that has not found favor on Capitol Hill. Alas, without congressional support, neither of the candidates’ plans has much chance of becoming a reality. And that’s tragic, for several reasons. Firstly, the nation’s infrastructure seriously needs an upgrade. Not just the plumbing and wiring, or the roads and bridges, but also the airports, schools, fire stations, and, yes, hospitals. In the most recent iteration of the American Society of Civil Engineers’ frequently referenced infrastructure report card, from 2013, the U.S. earned a D+. Secondly, given the historically low interest rates, never in our lifetimes will there be a more financially advantageous moment to make the investment. Thirdly, the economy and the job market could use another jolt, to push us over the line from “recovering” to “recovered,” or better. And lastly, there are few smarter, more equitable ways to improve lives, which is why I couldn’t help but remember the Gensler clinic (a collaboration with Forum Studio) during the debate.
The old hospital building, a 1915 Beaux-Arts landmark that provided the model for the gritty TV drama ER, has been shuttered for over a decade. Yet from its prominent site along Chicago’s major east-west artery, the Eisenhower Expressway, it remains a depressing symbol of deprivation. The online Encyclopedia of Chicago describes Cook County Hospital as “open to all patients, generally poor or destitute, and often alcoholic.” And almost entirely immigrant: 19th-century European settlers; blacks moving north in the Great Migration; and more recently Hispanics and Asians. When the Gensler’s clinic opens in 2018, it will serve the same important constituencies. No matter who we elect as president, it’s time to design better symbols, and finer realities, for every American.