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Harvey Gantt, FAIA: Architecture, Politics, and Building Community

Charlotte, N.C.’s first African-American mayor is an architect

By Sara Fernández Cendón

While not being serenaded by national party luminaries and celebrities unafraid of mixing business with politics, the assembled throngs at this year’s Democratic National Convention heard—as they have every four years since the New Deal—from a left-leaning coalition of professions: union presidents, firefighters, factory workers, and teachers.

But there was also an architect on the stage in Charlotte this fall.

Harvey Gantt, FAIA, gave a brief speech introducing a tribute to recently deceased Democratic Party leaders. Gantt earned his spot on the stage with a lifelong dedication to civic service and democratic ideals that started when he became the first African-American student to attend Clemson University, which admitted him under court order in 1963. After graduating with honors with a Bachelor’s of Architecture degree, Gantt went on to earn a master’s in city planning from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In 1983, he became the first African-American mayor of Charlotte, N.C., site of the Democratic convention this year.

During the 1990s, Gantt twice challenged the late Jesse Helms, one of the most staunchly conservative and controversial national officeholders of the last half century, for his seat in the U.S. Senate. As an African-American running for national office (quite competitively) in the South, Gantt’s 1990 race against Helms became a flashpoint for post–Civil Rights Movement grievances and perceptions of privilege which culminated in Helms’ infamous “Hands” political ad. But the intense ideological divide between the two candidates, and the racial overtones of the campaign, attracted supporters from all over the country, including a third-year law student named Barack Obama, who was photographed wearing a “Harvey Gantt for U.S. Senate” t-shirt.

Though unsuccessful in his runs for the Senate, Gantt has continued his political involvement while leading Gantt Huberman Architects, the Charlotte-based practice he founded with Jeffrey Huberman, FAIA, in 1971. In recognition of his years of contributions to civic life, in 2009 Charlotte’s Afro-American Cultural Center was renamed the Harvey Gantt Center for African American Arts + Culture, an institution housed in a building designed by Philip Freelon, FAIA.

As he looks back on his dual careers in architecture and public service, Gantt finds a lot of intuitive parallels and areas of mutual influence. To succeed in either architecture or in politics, he says, one must understand problems at the community level, listen closely, and orchestrate sometimes-disparate wills. Running through both spheres of his professional life has always been the conviction that success follows the thoughtful interpretation of the client’s—or the people’s—needs and desires.

LESSON ONE: Understanding community impact

I got into public service quite by accident. I was asked to fulfill an unexpired term of a Charlotte City Council member, and when I got there I found out that I really liked it.

My graduate school work was at MIT in planning, which I wanted to match with my architectural background. I was curious about how cities developed, and not just the physical aspects of cities that architects are inclined to be interested in, but the socioeconomic aspect of how cities develop. I wanted to understand what caused some parts of them to be great, and others not so good. I wanted to understand how cities allocate resources, how they handle budgets, and so on. I often wondered if we could ever design cities in such a way that everyone would have a chance to enjoy a better quality of life without regard to the circumstance of where you lived.

So, prior to my one-year appointment on the City Council expiring, I decided to continue to run for public office. I had found that my background as a planner and an architect helped me to understand how the use of public policy, coupled with smart resource allocation, could be used to raise the quality of neighborhoods and the public realm.

For example, regarding resource allocation, as an architect I know that some communities do well when they have certain kinds of facilities in them, such as libraries or parks, and certain attributes, such as well-planned land uses that allow neighborhoods to thrive. And from the perspective of a policymaker, I saw an opportunity to impact where those resources went, so I could immediately relate to things that I did as an architect, [like] designing and building parks, libraries, etc. As an architect I had to consider what impact those projects might have on neighborhoods and people, and as a public servant I had the opportunity and responsibility to ensure that those projects became reality through the give and take of consensus building and defining priorities.

LESSON TWO: Constituents and colleagues as clients

In architecture, when we are successful with our design, we are good because we interpreted very clearly the program of the owner. Oftentimes the owner is not a single person, but the people who will be using those facilities. We learn something in the programming process about what the needs of the client might be. In our office, we spend a lot of time interacting with both the client and the surrogate client (the people who are going to use the buildings), and we come out of that process with a mix of goals that we have to put together to create the program and then develop the design.

In politics it’s very much the same way. I have to work with Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, people who might be a little bit more myopic, focused only on the concerns of the district represented, and representatives with more of a bird’s-eye view of the city. And as a politician, having to blend lots of different ideas, particularly when I was mayor, reminded me of developing good programs for clients. In either case, you have to have the skill of hearing all these voices and then crafting some kind of solution. As an architect, you try to bring all these factors together for a resolution in a three-dimensional context.

But I also think my political background has helped to influence an understanding of the architectural solutions we have to come up with. When we talk to a community about a school, for example, we see a lot more than just a site and a proposed building. I’m influenced by the neighborhood that the specific project is in, and we’re always designing for that surrogate client. A lot of my practice deals with community-type buildings, schools, or buildings on college campuses, where we have to deal with a cross-section of students, faculty, etc.

LESSON THREE: Orchestrating wills

In design, we put together different materials to create this harmonic whole. In politics, we tend to put together people, and we work with them so they will buy into a particular solution to a problem. So, in either case, we’re always working hard orchestrating the will and the desire of people.

For example, a few years ago we were called into a community to design a high school. The high school was part of an effort to revitalize a whole section of this particular community. We went in to meet the superintendent of schools, and we met the facilities people, and they pointed out that we’d have to also deal with the neighborhood group that was very concerned about the quality of school that was going into their neighborhood.

We asked the school system for a chance to deal directly with the neighborhood group, to blend the desires of the school board as to what they wanted from an education standpoint with the community’s perspective that wanted the school to be a catalyst for community development. We discovered there was great distrust between the community and the school system. And we spent a lot of time working with all these groups before we drew the first line to paper, just trying to get these different sets of goals blended. We were trying to get the school system to understand a little bit about what the community wanted, to overcome some of the distrust from the community that thought the school board would never build the kind of facility they thought they needed.

And what came out of that process was a project that included a major street, building the school around that street, creating a mall, creating a public amphitheater—satisfying those needs, with the school as a centerpiece for that community. I don’t think we would’ve done nearly as well had we not engaged the politics of community building.


Harvey Gantt, FAIA. All images courtesy of Gantt Huberman Architects.

Gantt’s renovation of Burke High School in Charleston, S.C.

Gantt with former Charlotte mayor pro tem Al Rousso. Image courtesy of Gantt Huberman Architects.


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