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Bricks, mortar and clout

Like others, Karl Rove is called an 'architect' in his field. Building designers wish they had as much influence.

August 29, 2007|Christopher Hawthorne | Times Staff Writer

Karl Rove, the canny and controversial presidential advisor who will be leaving the White House at the end of the week, may have more enemies than anybody in Washington. He also may have more nicknames. George Bush calls him "boy genius." Critics of the administration have often described him as "Bush's brain."

But the name that has really stuck with Rove over the years is "the architect." In January 2000, before Bush had competed in a presidential primary, he was asked about Rove's role in shaping his campaign strategy.

"Karl gets credit for being the architect of it," he said, "and he should." He famously repeated the term at a news conference after his 2004 victory over John Kerry. Wayne Slater and James Moore titled their second book on Rove, published last year, "The Architect: Karl Rove and the Master Plan for Absolute Power."

What is it about architecture that makes it so attractive as a metaphorical job description? There's Bill Walsh, the NFL coach who after he died last month was widely remembered as "the architect of the West Coast offense." And Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, Osama bin Laden's Rove, often is called the architect of 9/11. Don't forget James Madison, architect of the Constitution, or Alfred Hitchcock, labeled by one of his biographers "the architect of anxiety." The computer industry is full of information and software "architects" who do their building with zeros and ones.

And, of course, there's God: architect of the universe.

The architect label suggests precision, strategic savvy and the ability to consider a project from a certain analytical remove -- to see the whole chessboard at a glance. It describes the person who sketches out a complex plan but never the one who executes it.

As a metaphor, it's a step up from "engineer," which used to be as common a rhetorical title as architect is now. Somebody in Rove's position a few decades ago would have been said to have "engineered" an electoral victory; those architects at Intel and Microsoft were once called software engineers.

But engineering, a profession that tends to be more esteemed in quickly growing industrial societies than in postindustrial ones like ours, has none of the Machiavellian undertones required to capture the scope of Rove's role. It implies pure expertise -- all science and no art.

In his canonical "Ten Books on Architecture," written in the 1st century BC, Roman architect Vitruvius argued that successful buildings had three qualities in common: firmness, commodity and delight. In other words, to qualify as a piece of architecture, a structure had to be not only stable and useful but beautiful.

That distinction helps explain why certain public figures become candidates for architect status. There usually has to be a sense, even among rivals, that what you are producing is the result of creativity along with hard work or brute force. It has to be impressive in form as well as function, in operation as well as plan. Like architecture, it has to have one foot in the practical world and one foot in the aesthetic.

And it helps if there is a noticeable gap between a typical approach to your job and the way you perform it. Walsh's reserved, professorial style on the sidelines and the quick grace of his best San Francisco 49ers offered a sharp contrast to football's inherent violence and plodding, three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust conservatism. Hitchcock too seemed all the more urbane because he was creating artworks for a mass audience, cinematic choreography to be enjoyed with popcorn.

A similar dynamic was at work from the start between Bush and Rove. As a presidential candidate, Bush had the popcorn part down from the beginning: Despite his gilded political pedigree as the son of a president and the grandson of a senator, and his years at Andover, Yale and Harvard, he has always been comfortable cloaking himself in down-home rhetoric. He needed a way to turn that raw material -- of connections and a certain kind of charm -- into votes on a national level.

And we, the public, needed a way to reconcile the seeming contradiction between the aw-shucks, tongue-tied Bush persona and the nimble strategic thinking that got him elected president -- twice -- by outfoxing the Democrats in nearly every battleground state. (Bush might have won Georgia or Texas by himself, but it took an architect to win Ohio.) Self-taught and widely curious, Rove is a true mirror image of Bush -- and the perfect vehicle for that reconciliation. If he hadn't existed, the pundits would have had to invent him.

The odd twist to this story is that architects are increasingly chafing at what they see as the political limitations of their profession. At ground zero in New York, in post-Katrina New Orleans and in traffic-choked Los Angeles, they are realizing that however much celebrity they may enjoy, it hasn't helped them become real players in shaping the future of cities.

Leading architects, including Thom Mayne and Rem Koolhaas, have been outspoken in recent months about trying to change that. They want to leverage their fame into clout and, by operating more strategically, move closer to the centers of power. They want to be metaphorical architects -- of disaster recovery, of urban rebirth -- and not just the real thing.

In short, they'd like to be more Rovian.


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