Featured Member - Charles L. Travis III, FAIA
As a firm principal in Charlotte, North Carolina, who recently served as mayor of his town, Charles L. Travis III wants more architects to realize how their skills translate to politics and beyond.
Charles L. Travis III, FAIA, does not have trouble keeping busy. In addition to a more-than-full-time job as principal at Housing Studio in Charlotte, North Carolina, he also served a recent term as mayor of Cornelius, North Carolina, after stints on various local boards and councils. Though many architects view their profession and politics as two very separate entities, Travis disagrees. “In today’s political climate, I think people are looking for leaders who can step in and solve problems,” he says, “and architects are trained to be problem solvers.”
When I’m asked to step up and lead, I feel very comfortable doing so. When I have to choose to step into the arena and put my name into a hat, so to speak, that’s when it gets a little more difficult. That’s why I started volunteering on various boards where I knew my architectural expertise would serve me well. After a stint on the planning board in Cornelius, other board members encouraged me to run for town council. They saw the benefit in having an architect involved in the planning process; they also saw how some of the recommendations we’d make would be shot down or overruled at the town council level. The town leaders didn’t understand how those decisions would impact development.
When I started running for town council, I didn’t have name recognition. I walked door to door to meet the voters, which is sometimes fun and sometimes very challenging. When I’d ring the doorbell, most people would pick up the phone and pretend to be busy. Or they’d open the back door and let the dog chase me. But occasionally we’d have a conversation; they wouldn’t be very interested until they found out I was an architect. The minute I said that, it all changed. The public sees architects as being leaders, as being folks who can solve problems. And they trust us, which is critical in today’s political environment.
"I want more architects to get involved in policymaking and in shaping the decisions that shape us all, and I think they can be most effective at the local government level."
I went on to win. And after two terms on the council, our mayor decided not to pursue another term and I decided to run. Becoming mayor really showed that people respect and value an architect in a leadership position. And that’s why I encourage others to do what I did. I hope more architects try stepping out of their comfort zones. I’m certainly not comfortable with public speaking, and I don’t gravitate toward it. But it’s part of giving back, and the reason I can give back effectively is because I lean on the foundational knowledge and design thinking that comes from years of practicing architecture.
Most politicians like to please everyone. And I know many people find it difficult to take in all the details, talk to everyone involved, and then stick to your beliefs when it’s decision time. But architects already do this. We’re trained to collect information, make the best informed decision we can, and believe in it. I never struggled at that, and I think people respected the confidence I had in myself.
I want more architects to get involved in policymaking and in shaping the decisions that shape us all, and I think they can be most effective at the local government level. A United States Senator has national impact but far less relevance on our day to day lives; if you want to make a difference where you live, local government is where you’re needed. That’s what I’ve taken away from being an elected official; I have seen real impact right in my own backyard.
What drove me the craziest was how slow government moves. I deal with developers who have a “Let’s make it happen yesterday” approach, so the slower speed of government was something I had to get used to. That’s another reason it helps to start with smaller steps like a planning board or an advisory board. Make use of your existing skills, and get used to contributing at that level. Then more and more people will come and ask you to get involved. If you’re not careful, they’ll even let you be mayor. —As told to Steve Cimino