A White House for the 21st Century


Washington may not claim the cutting edge of design, but its icons provide a backdrop against which others test new ideas.

Take the White House.

Dwell magazine launched a contest earlier this year to "re-imagine" the Executive Mansion. Editor in Chief Karrie Jacobs hoped contestants would address real-world issues such as working at home, while contemplating how modern architecture might better reflect democratic ideals.

Four proposals will be published in the September-October issue, on newsstands Aug. 15. Two 36-year-old New York designers, Rebecca Trump and Tom Koehl, won the top prize for a holistic, electronic makeover. It probably didn't hurt that their vision of a 21st century president is a woman.

"One of the goals of the competition was to reconsider that building as the symbol of democracy," says Trump, who lived in Washington for a decade. "We also thought about the experience of the president, which wasn't all that great, being cut off from regular daily experience."

As the Tenka Group, Trump and Koehl make a living consulting on products and services for companies such as Motorola, Hewlett-Packard and Pepsico. They apply social science to design to help clients "understand social, cultural, cognitive, physical and emotional aspects" of their customers.

To bone up on the humanistic needs of the presidency, Trump and Koehl read newspapers, watched "The West Wing" and consulted a behavioral sociologist. Trump had visited the White House, Koehl had not.

Their research led to a critical assessment: "The White House is detached from its public. It is isolated geographically, intellectually, politically and economically. ... Its public is uninformed, unaware and uninvited. It is a moated castle that, although technically open to all, welcomes only a few."

The White House functions like a museum, they added, "not the living, organic, forward-looking organization it is."

Such an indictment should send any designer back to the drawing board.

The prescription for change begins with communication. The designers envision futuristic "nerve ribbons" that would serve as an interactive electronic graffiti board for people and the president to post their thoughts.

On Pennsylvania Avenue itself, a translucent cube would link the executive residence with offices in the West Wing. Its facade would change color to reflect changes in public opinion--presumably cool hues for an icy reception to new policies, hot for the alternative. Inside, conventional hierarchical offices would be rearranged to encourage collaboration.

The path from living quarters to work space would include a homey detour through the kitchen, to restore some semblance of everyday life. And, when the pressure of the job becomes too much, the president could escape into a private "tree house" in the Oval Office.

Jacobs, who selected 40 entries for judging, would like to put the top 20 proposals on tour.

"One of the things that came up was the impulse to reveal what goes on inside of the White House to the public," she says. "There seems to be some desire for transparency."

No one expects remodeling at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. to result.

Trump and Koehl say they considered demolishing Irish architect James Hoban's 1792 mansion and starting over. In the end, Koehl says, "I had to appreciate the history and all the great things that happened to make the country what it is. It is representative of the Founding Fathers to me."

But that doesn't mean he wouldn't "shake it up."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World