As arbiters of good design, architects often have to walk a fine line between competing factions, carefully weaving and dodging in order to find a balance that brings together disparate views and agendas for a common goal.
Surprisingly, though, we’re not as eager to throw ourselves into the fray when it comes to politics even though we’re perfectly positioned to have an impact on local, national, and even global issues.
Thomas Jacobs, AIA, is an exception to that rule.
Tom is a Swiss-American citizen architect who practices at the intersection of design, education and advocacy to catalyze inclusive positive change in the built environment and beyond. He is a Partner with Krueck + Sexton Architects and an Adjunct Professor at IIT College of Architecture in Chicago.
Especially passionate about the architect’s responsibility to healthy and livable communities, Tom cofounded the action platform Architects Advocate, a nonpartisan grassroots network to promote action on climate change. Tom also spearheads projects which positively affect disadvantaged communities, and he actively inspires and encourages the AEC community in this mission.
In 2012 Tom was recognized by the AIA with the Young Architects Award for his infectious guidance and aspirational outlook of the profession. An adjunct Associate Professor at the Graduate Program of Architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology, he challenges his students to be purposeful in creating their own path from talented individuals to transformational leaders in their careers and communities.
Tom and I sit down and discuss the role of politics in architecture, and the conversely the role of architecture in politics. Especially in this politically charged year, it’s a conversation that is sorely needed, and his message hits at the core of who we can be, both personally and professionally.
Welcome to the Architects Possibility Podcast with David Bradley of Blueprint for Living Coaching. Each week we connect with design professionals, just like you, who are using their creativity, leadership, and passion to make the world a better place in ways both big and small every day. Now, here’s the host of the Architect’s Possibility Podcast, architect and executive coach, David Bradley.
Good day, everyone. I am speaking today with Tom Jacobs. Tom Jacobs is a Swiss-American citizen architect who practices in Chicago as a partner of Krueck and Sexton architects, and he’s an adjunct professor at IIT College of Architecture in Chicago. Tom is especially passionate about the architect’s responsibility to healthy and livable communities, and he co-founded the action platform, Architects Advocate. It’s a nonpartisan grassroots network to promote action on climate change. Tom also spearheads projects which positively affect disadvantaged communities and he actively inspires and encourages the AEC community in this mission. In 2012, Tom was recognized by the American Institute of Architects with the Young Architects Award for his infectious guidance and aspirational outlook of the profession. So, Tom is here. We’re going to have this great conversation specifically around architecture and politics, and I’m really excited to welcome you, Tom. Thanks for being here.
Thank you for having me, David.
No question. Why don’t we just jump right in? I’m curious why you feel architecture and politics go hand in hand. Why is it important to talk about politics and architecture these days?
So maybe a good way to give a little context of how we end up with this topic is that, I think it’s probably tied to my upbringing or the way of growing up, which was in Switzerland. So as you said in the introduction, I’m a dual citizen. And sort of have the, you know, the European slash Swiss education, but then have practiced in the US for basically almost my entire career. And the thing about growing up in Switzerland, it’s a small country of about 7 million people. Its government is actually designed, you know, very strongly influenced by the US system of Congress with two houses and all of that. It’s almost like a carbon copy of it, but Switzerland turns out to be one of the most democratic systems in that there is a ton of citizen engagement, every couple months there’s like a big referendum or an initiative that it gets put on the ballot.
So if you grew up Switzerland, the idea of being an active citizen is something that it’s almost like you can’t avoid it. You just really, you see your parents and all your friends, everybody is voting all the time. And so I have, you know, some of that attitude in my DNA. And so if you jump all the way across time and into this great country, as practicing architects, one of the main challenges that we face is that the built environment contributes almost 40% of all carbon emissions worldwide. So what we do as architects and planners and builders influences the future paths of humanity significantly. I mean, you’ve mentioned in the intro, too, I’m very active in the climate action debate and so forth, but we basically know that we are in a totally unique moment in human history, where if we do not get our act together, and if we don’t figure out a way how to put out – how to burn – less fossil fuels, we’re gonna – nobody knows what that will mean for humanity.
And so again, we are as architects, we basically directly impact how well we’re going to be doing. And so again, if I look at all the parts of the world, if you want to build a building in Germany or Switzerland today, the building codes and energy codes are…So in my opinion, they’re so well developed that you cannot but build in a very responsible and smart way. You know, you might be required to buy triple glazing for your windows and you have very high insulation for the walls and roofs and all of that. And it’s fine. Those economies still compete. You know, the argument that all you can’t do that because then the system falls apart is simply not true. So effecting what we do through codes is ultimately the way to go. I mean, in terms of speed and scale, this is the way to do it.
The problem that we have here in the U S is that the energy codes are way too lax. They’re not…they’re just too low. It allows us to continue building in ways that are not good for the environment. And so, you know, having said all of that, I think then you just keep thinking about where else do you go? And at the end of the day, because codes are implemented by political bodies, you end up with politics. And so that’s where I’m very passionate about having this discussion about architecture and politics. You know, as a fellow architect, we can talk about anything and it’s one of the reasons why it’s the greatest profession in the world. And it’s so, you know, but I’ve always been surprised by the relative lack of discussion on politics. And I think that’s something that we just, we can no longer afford not to not to discuss.
Why do you think we avoid that conversation?
One reason is that firms that are commercial business enterprises have been very concerned about being perceived as being political. So this opens up, you know, maybe it’s not a side conversation, but we have allowed – we being our society – have allowed to confuse the word politics with the word partisan. So, you know, the partisanship that we experience all around us and throughout the nation, that’s a…That’s a huge problem. The fact that we act tribal that it’s, you’re either part of this group or that group. And we only have two for practical purposes. Yes, there’s the Green Party and there’s a few others, but they don’t, you know, they don’t have enough mass. There’s really only two groups, left and right. And we have become so polarized and this really goes to the fundamentals of who we are as human beings who act, you know, who need to belong.
And at some point the need to belong to a group trumps any reason or even science and says like, now I won’t even listen to that. I’m just going to be part of that group. So polarization I consider to be the real cancer on society, which is, you know, I almost…if we don’t figure out how to do better in terms of the polarization, we’re going to have a big…I mean, that’s…Almost everything else is going to be really hard. But the word…to be “political” doesn’t mean to be partisan, right? I mean, to be political basically means…do …am I engaged as a citizen? Am I…do I vote? Do I go to the ballot box? Do I maybe participate in my school district, my township council, whatever it might be. And that is something that, because of this confusion between being political and being partisan, businesses basically have taken the attitude that it is safer not to say anything that can be perceived as political because it’s about business and you don’t want to be perceived as saying anything that could go against somebody’s political beliefs, because at some point you might even lose a client.
And so we have, I mean, I have direct evidence of this because when we started our work with Architects Advocate for action on climate change, which was a grassroots effort that started out of our company, when we asked other firms, you know, don’t you think it’s time that we take a stand on climate change and then, you know, we had great response, but especially when you got…the bigger a firm gets and the more they have corporate decision making structures, the harder it gets, the harder it is to get them to join something like that. Because all of a sudden there’s like, Oh, you know, you can’t introduce politics into the business world. That’s taboo. That could hurt us. And then everybody starts backing away. So that’s why I really consider that it’s sort of a wicked problem. And it has contributed a lot with the fact that we still barely discuss architecture and politics together.
It’s fascinating. How do you think we then overcome that reluctance to engage in politics? How do we rewrite the story about partisanship versus politics?
Well, there are obviously so many answers, but maybe the one that we could start with, to me goes back to education. And, you know, because if you take somebody who is in their mid fifties, or, you know, I’m sorry to say, but if you’re in your mid- to late-fifties or even older, and you still…you are more dug in than you ever have on some level, I’m not sure, you know, I’m going to have a lot of hope left for these, for somebody like that, to, you know, all of a sudden say, Oh no, this has all been wrong. And we should…we need to figure out a better way. I’ve always put my hopes into the next generation. And so, you know, if we were to educate our young people, our young architects, maybe with a much greater awareness of the importance of being political, I think we’d have a better chance and “political” doesn’t mean anything.
It just means too, you know, we have…we are a free society that has chosen a democratic system as a form of government. Any democracy can only function if the people that make the system are active, if they pay attention, if they’re well-informed and you know, this is, I’m ultimately all tied to the moment in time that we find ourselves with. Harari has written very beautifully about this. The fact that, you know, one of the problems today is that there is so much information out there that for pretty much all of human history, it really was…access to information, meant power. And of course, today through technology, we have information all around us. We have access to all the world’s knowledge in our pockets or our cell phones and all of that. And so you can actually even see the rise of fake news is I think in…People agree is basically just because it’s no longer a matter of who gets information.
It’s just, there’s so much information out there that you actually just have to water it down and flood the market with so much information, including lots of fake stuff so that people can’t make sense out of it anymore. And then that allows…it’s much easier to then manipulate people into their tribal instincts. And so, again, I think we have…there’s so much work ahead of us in education, where we have to teach people even before they come to architecture school. How do you…where do you find good information? How do you decide whether it’s good or bad? How do you interpret it? There’s, you know, pretty much all the curriculum that we have to get us to a certain point has to be reinvented. And then, you know, by the time you end up in architecture school with theoretical…you could talk about how to build buildings, but we…our problems are much more fundamental than that. And, you know, that really affects what we teach in architecture schools as well
In your capacity, as a professor at the Illinois Institute of technology in the graduate program of architecture, how do you personally bring that to your teaching?
That’s sort of like an experiment that quite literally happened, not as we speak, but every Friday when I teach my seminar, which is called Good Design and Good Business, it has basically grown in terms of scope and depth of discussion. So this semester, I’m quite literally trying to re-think all this content specifically as a reaction to the world that we find ourselves in. I mean, even COVID, right, is everything is online. So now the teaching fundamentally has gotten so much more difficult because it’s all over a screen and so forth. But I really just…if you, if we want to stick with COVID for a second, you know how everybody right now says, when’s the vaccine coming, because everybody believes that that’s going to be the threshold moment to sort of back to some normalcy. But look at what COVID has done.
And I’m not trying to downplay it in any way, but it’s a virus that – and we have so many viruses, there will be others coming – and at least for that external threat, we actually have the medical community and research institutions and fund companies and so forth. I mean, we have, we know what to do, and we’re eventually going to get there. So the vaccine will presumably sort of solve this, but let’s go back to the idea of partisanship and polarization as a cancer on society. I’ve purposely started calling it a cancer because I believe it’s much more insidious. Like, we can’t really cure cancer now, right? It’s just, we don’t know enough about it. And I sort of feel the same about partisanship because we can’t just develop a vaccine to, you know, make people be more enlightened and figure out that turning against each other is not smart.
I mean, our country, this country that I am a citizen of now, too, a very proud one, has in its name…the first word in its name is United States of America, right? So there’s a bunch of states, there were oh, so many and now it’s 50 and whatever, but the key word with what we hold dear, is the idea that we would do it United. And you look at our system today and it’s everything BUT. You look at the upcoming election in November, and it is staggering to see the extent to which people take positions to try to tear the other side down. And so, you know, those things concern me deeply and just…sorry for the long-winded answer. But when you asked about how, what does that mean for your teaching right now? And it’s quite literally trying to have discussions similar to the one you and I are having right now, which are just two, let’s just, let’s start with acknowledging what’s actually going on. We have to talk about it, but you cannot just…you know, to me, the worst thing would be if you went to architecture school and they’re like, well, you know, the world is a little hard to predict and we don’t quite know what’s going on, but it’s too hard, too complex. So let’s just forget about that. I’ll teach you how to build, you know, how to frame a building. I’m not…of course we should still do this.
(inaudible) my colleagues at the school who are doing this, but for me personally, it’s just, that’s a little bit like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. I feel we have to also just be much more honest with our young people, students in particular who some, you know, frequently they have a tendency to come to school and then it’s like a bit of a transactional saying, you go to school, you get taught, you do your homework, you get a good grade and you’re, you know, you’re set. It’s again…I, of course, I’m not saying that’s bad, but it’s part of that set up that has gotten us into the position we’re in now. And we just fundamentally have to say, but we don’t, this is not going to get us out of it. And we also don’t really have the answers. So, a lot of times in my current teaching, I’m trying to figure out how to make it, how to give them, the students, tools to become active, not to say activists, but if that happens, I’m very happy with that too. But, you know, give them not just talk about things and theorize about it, but give them actual tools through which they can engage differently and maybe take certain actions. Because I think that, I think, you know, a form of that is basically what’s needed today.
What I’m hearing in your sharing here is it sounds like there’s a call for a more holistic understanding of what it means to be an architect. And it’s not just simply getting the degrees. You can build a building, but it’s understanding the inextricable role that we have as…we’re social architects, as much as we are physical architects and giving students that understanding so that we can have these conversations. It’s almost like giving them tools that you wouldn’t expect in an architect’s drafting case, right? The engagement is really thing. You also mentioned something about good design and good business, and I’m trying to weave this all together in my head because there’s a…we’ve also discussed…you and I have discussed how architecture is often seen as the “white hat profession”. My sense is that the white hat is actually an antiquated view of who architects are in society. Yes. It’s a very noble profession and architects traditionally, somehow are seen as the good guys who come in with the white hat and make everything right. But what doesn’t occur in that context is the partnership and the engagement. And it’s sort of the architect as savior rather than the architect as partner in society.
I’m curious…If we provide those tools to these students that are up and coming. What’s the one most important tool that you would provide? Like, what’s the one thing that you didn’t get out of your architectural education that you think would equip them the best?
Yeah, that’s…what a great question. You know, just maybe starting…if I circle back to the idea of the white hat profession or what we do. I mean, I, and of course, as you know, I’m totally biased, right? As a passionate architect. So, take it with a grain of salt, but I do believe, and from my professional experience, I think architects fundamentally are, you know, similar to a conductor in an orchestra in that when you do anything complex, you have to, you know, there’s all these things that have to be done. And the architect by his or her very nature are sort of in a conducting position in that we draw it up, we sort of have the vision or the big idea, but then from our documents, even all these other trades people, you know, do their part. Governments are involved. They have to give you permits. Neighbors are involved. They generally have to agree with what you want to do in their neighborhood. You have to, you know, it’s like, I mean, we really, what we do is a, whether you call it conductor or it’s sort of like a, like an ambassadorship, I mean, if you’re really good at doing this, you have to be pretty skillful in communicating and all of this. And so I, part of my bias tells me that through the architectural education we are really very well prepared to play these roles. So now that the world is getting so impossibly complex, what are we going to do? Who are we going to be entrusted with? And that’s my bias – is to sorta like…towards…well, here’s a group of people that are, they actually have a good reputation, so we’ve earned it. You know, this is just made up.
I mean, we have, this is true to a large extent. And my hope is that we can convince our fellow society members that we actually are used to finding solutions to problem solve, not to get pulled into one extreme or the other, and, you know, participating in a blaming game and all of that. So if that’s the vision or the… that would be a very nice place for the…for our profession in general to go to, and, you know, for students that would mean too that’s, yes, I’ve picked a noble profession and something where I can really make a difference where it can be useful to society. So having said all of this, your other question about what, you know, what’s the one thing that you wish you had known then? And, I mean, I, you know, it actually has something to do – and I’m going to have to figure out how to explain this without getting into a rabbit warren, just going, you know, boring your audience to pieces…
But I have, you know, I’m pretty, very proud of my career of some of the projects that I’ve been involved in and what I’ve been able to do. But I’ve had an experience about a year ago that really opened my eyes in a way that is…was completely unexpected. So up to, you know, for the first 50 years of my life, I sort of did what you’re supposed. I was a good student and then I was a good architect. And then I put my time in and, you know, you just sort of did everything. And it was all good. A lot of the things that you do as an architect has to do with sort of trying to take control. You actually, you know, quite literally when you build a building on some level, you take complete control over it and you design it first and then you make sure it gets built that way and so forth.
But there are, I think, for every human being there are moments in life that are not controlled, that I had basically a personal crisis of my own a year ago. That was completely unexpected that I never saw coming. And so almost overnight, I sort of found myself into questioning all sorts of things and through that, and that also actually had something to do with the climate action debate, which at that same, uh, around that same time where I faced a personal crisis of my own, it just so happened that like three weeks later there was the global climate strike in Chicago that we were very active with. I gave a big lecture at IIT where we had almost all students and the large majority of faculty. Like you could sort of sense, like finally, there’s a momentum that’s different. So maybe something’s going to happen now.
But a couple of days later, Paul Hawkin also showed up in Chicago, the author of the 100 most powerful solutions to reversing climate change. He lectured in Chicago and gave a spectacular presentation and at the end of his talk in the Q and A somebody asked him and said, so, you know, you’re obviously preaching to the choir here, but how should we, you know, with this climate crisis and the fact that, you know, maybe humanity will end and how are we supposed to deal with this and how are we going to convince the other side? And Paul Hawkins said, and I sort of paraphrase, but he said, you don’t need to convince anybody. You need to convince yourself, you have to, this all starts with you and, you know, the answer is inside. And (inaudible) so on. And so I have, again, it’s a longer story, but I have become very aware of things like not only self care and so forth, but also the practice of meditation.
I mean, one way for me to actually deal with my crisis and ultimately getting beyond it had a lot to do with a realization that there is so much work that we do. And so much of our education is completely externally focused. It’s always about how do you draw it? How do you build it? How have you…and again, I’m not saying that’s wrong or that should go away, but I have become extremely aware of the fact that we actually don’t really teach many tools to students about how to deal with their inner self. And when I say inner self, it could be as simple as how do you deal with stress? How do you deal with the overwhelm that everyone, every single one of us faces now that we can’t even, you know, interact with? I mean, there is a huge underlying…or undercurrent of…between just stress from deadlines or whatever, or doing well in school, to stress of what does COVID mean to the stress of…and I’ve been guilty of this…
I’ve given lectures on climate change, basically showing all the, you know, the Amazon fire and the Arctic underwater instead of there being ice and all that kind of stuff. And at the end of the day, you sort of think like wait, did I…did that actually help the cause? Or did that just even make it worse because now how could you not freak out? How could you not, well, how do you deal with all this? So again, sorry for the long winded answer. But the thing I wish I had been told, or I had developed a greater awareness from the start and I can make it very, very pragmatic for architecture students – I wish I had learned how to lead a more balanced life. And that is, you know, in architecture school, you know it as well as anybody who’s been there, it is the mantra is you’re there 18 hours a day, at least otherwise, you know, you’re a wimp or your project can’t be any good and it…and I get it, you know, like I’ve done it plenty of times too, and it’s fine.
You can do it for a while and you can do it easier when you’re younger, but as you grow older or, you know, maybe more mature, whatever. I mean, you know, my life crisis had something to do with realizing how unbalanced my life was up to that point.
And so that’s a, to me that ties into wait a second, what do we teach? And while we should continue teaching all these important things, why have we not found a little niche or just enough time to tell people who teach them that they need to take care of themselves to teach them tools, to deal with stress with time management, with, you know, the whole gamut…
Why I love having these conversations, Tom, because that was not the answer I was expecting. So, I love that you went in that direction, work life balance, self care. Absolutely. If there were one…we have a big, obviously the big election coming up in November…if there were one message that you would want to send out to the architecture community regarding activism and action, what would it, what would it be?
I think it might be something along the lines of let’s redouble our commitment to not become partisan. You know, the last thing I want to do is to all of a sudden have our profession – or suggest that architects – take sides or whatever. However, given that the scientific consensus is all, but, you know, unanimous, given that, we are faced…I mean, you watch the news today and you have from wildfires to hurricanes to…I mean, clearly something is off. And so, what maybe my message would be is can we all get smarter and maybe more unified in making or taking positions that voting is absolutely critical for our fundamental system to work. And as we do this, become a climate voter, right? It’s just, I mean, vote on topics, not party, and not even if you end up seeing people’s names on the ballot, look at those names in terms of, does that person help or hurt with regards to, you know, better codes – which is what I started saying at the beginning – if you’re very passionate about equality and, you know, combating racial inequality and so forth, vote on that.
And so if we could just, again, because we have as a white hat professional and all of that, we have some credibility and we haven’t been partisan. I think we could utilize our platform, if you will, of being respected professionals. We could utilize that on behalf of healthier communities, more equitable communities, all the things that the AIA has talked about, you know – our fundamental values. We don’t have a disagreement there, we… it’s…and we don’t have to fight it, even if it is, you know, it is what it is. And that’s something that I sort of miss frequently, that we are….that despite our community is consisting of so many great people and so many smart people and all of that, but we have, you know, we’re not quite as influential as maybe we could be if we figured this out in a different way.
And that way contribute to, you know, I mean to…this election is a little extreme because in terms of candidates, I mean, there’s one side that says that the problem is, it still says the problem is made up. And the other side is I think…seems to be committed to actually to taking action if they get into office. But, you know, there’s no guarantees. We’ll have to see what happens.
Time will tell. It’s great advice for uncertain times. I’m going to include information in the link in the show notes on the Blueprint For Living blog for Architects Advocate. But if anybody wants to join or get involved, where can they find you?
Yeah. If you, if people go on our website, which is literally Architects-dash-Advocate.com, or I think that actually the dash is only in our email address.
It’s just… I mean, if you Google it, you’ll find it right away. And on our webpage, there is different ways people can join. There’s a sign-up for firms if they actually want to sort of join as a firm, but you can also join as an individual. And that basically we don’t really put out a ton of information in terms of newsletters, because we always hear, you know, you get flooded with all that stuff. So it’s hard to actually even get noticed that individuals who sign up get added to our email list and on some level, you know, really what Architects Advocate is, it’s just a big network. It’s a… it’s an email list of about two and a half thousand individuals and many, many firms across the country. So it’s a network more than anything that allows us to reach out and advocate.
Terrific. Tom, I could talk to you about this for hours. I really want to thank you and acknowledge you for representing the profession so brilliantly, your stand for the planet, and your call forward to all of us to engagement and action. Thank you so much for taking time to chat with me today.
Always my pleasure. Thank you for having me, Dave.
Thanks for joining us this week on the Architects Possibility Podcast with architect and executive coach, David Bradley, produced by Blueprint for Living Coaching. If you found value in the show, be sure to give us a rating on iTunes and share it with an architect you know! Remember to tune in next week for our next episode of the Architects Possibility Podcast. Until then, keep celebrating the possibility in your life and make it a wonder-filled day!