Sometime around late 1989 or early 1990, I went with my friend Doug Michels - distinguished Architect and Futurist - to talk with one of the higher-ups at the Department of Housing and Urban Development about the future of American housing. I had arranged this meeting through my Senator with the highest ranking career guy in the department who supposedly was right under Secretary Jack Kemp in the chain of command. Kemp wasn't taking meetings about 'those kinds of issues' - at least that was the word from the Senator's staff.
Doug was one of the founders of the experimental design group Ant Farm based in San Francisco; they produced art and architecture projects throughout the US. You may be familiar with their most famous work, Cadillac Ranch - American roadside art near Amarillo, Texas celebrating the evolution of the tail fin.
We didn't really know what to expect or what would come out of the discussion, but we were interested in what HUD was doing because we had heard Kemp was there to shake things up.
As a young architect, I was very eager to be prepared, and asked Doug how much time we would need before the meeting to go over our agenda. He said "Polk, we prepare every day of our lives."
So we, or at least I, went in blindly.
When we got there, we were ushered through light security (this was well before 911) to a nondescript government office space, and very shortly, our man - a somewhat portly and very friendly guy - walked in.
"What can I do for you?"
After a few niceties, we asked "What is HUD doing to address the future of housing in this country?"
The guy seemed a bit perplexed. He said "Well, there were a few people looking into that in the late 70's, but Reagan got rid of all of them."
Then, with a sudden gleam in his eye, he perked up. Leaning forward, as if to let us in on the secret of the universe, he smiled and said "Lead Paint! We've got a big push on now for lead paint abatement." He was very self-congratulatory.
Doug and I were speechless. We both just grinned and looked back and forth at each other and the HUD guy while he went on about all they were doing in the area of lead paint abatement. We were trying not to crack up.
Very quickly, we excused ourselves. There was nothing left to talk about. We barely made it out of the building before we were howling with laughter.
Forever more, "Lead Paint Abatement" was our running punch line for any joke.
But the real joke was that HUD has for the past 3 decades (with the exception of some activity during the Clinton Administration, albeit woefully underfunded) been out of the business of shaping the future of America's housing.
Seems preposterous, doesn't it.
Well, I think the situation shifted 180 degrees on November 4th. And from all I know about Shaun Donovan, and admittedly that's not much, HUD will be taking a more proactive approach, giving direction and thought to the matter of housing design and building in America. Obama has demonstrated that he understands why planning for what we want to see manifested, rather than leaving it to chance and businessmen, is a fundamentally higher level of thinking - responsive to the human condition, not simply to the bottom line of a vinyl siding-slapping profiteer.
I may even see if I can schedule another meeting. Doug, now no longer with us, will be watching from the ether whispering "Lead Paint, Lead Paint, Lead Paint," and laughing hysterically.
This is exciting.