06.16.06 One Point of View

The 2006 AIA Convention took place last Thursday through Saturday, June 8-10, in Los Angeles. Below, ArchVoices co-editor Brandy Brooks offers up a perspective on the events.

"What we build is what we'll be remembered for ... buildings don't lie."
--Alexandros Washburn AIA, “Design Leadership & Advocacy in the Public Realm”AIA Pre-Convention Workshop, June 7, 2006
When we look at the built environment today, what is it telling us about who we are and what we value? Architectural Record, the magazine of the AIA, in its May 2006 pre-AIA Convention issue on Los Angeles singles out the highlights of LA architecture; the list includes large private homes, luxury condominium developments, corporate offices and a few cultural or educational institutions. According to this list, we are a society of the elite and powerful, and we value those with the deep pockets for big buildings. But as a record 25,000+ attendees traveled to Los Angeles, slept in well-appointed hotels, ate out, and discussed our globalized lifestyles of Starbucks and digital technology in a world where nearly 3 billion people live on less than $2/day, it was hard to shake the feeling that our frame of reference is just off.

A Convention session on the ethics and policy of prison design also tells us something about what we value. Raphael Sperry, an AIA member and president of Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility, noted that our annual investment in prison construction and operations far outstrips our annual education spending, and wondered what message we are sending our youth about the future we are building for them. Another panelist, a prison architect, stated that the dramatic increase in the prison population over the past 30 years has made cities and streets safer for everyone. But when I asked whether the incarceration of a disproportionately minority, undereducated, unemployed, mentally ill and homeless group truly made socio-economically disadvantaged citizens feel safer, the panelist quickly moved on to other questions about space planning and prison staffing. In truth, architects are far more comfortable discussing the technical aspects of design and construction than acknowledging their role in correcting or perpetuating the problems facing our world today.

Following the Trends

However, the tide might be turning in the profession; after all, Convention speeches and workshops were swirling with talk about architects' “engagement” in their communities. But to what end? One stated example of architectural leadership in the public realm was service on an architectural review board – with the goal of making it easier for architects to get modernist designs built in their communities. When our cities and countries are facing rapid ecological degradation and increasing inability to provide well-designed buildings and neighborhoods that are equally accessible to all people, is stylistic guidance truly the kind of leadership we need from design professionals?

A panel on architectural leadership in ethics and social issues provided a better model for the role that designers could play in the world's future. Lisa Findley, an architect educator at California College of the Arts and author of the book Building Change: Architecture, Politics, & Cultural Agency, stressed that ethical considerations are part of a designer's daily decisions, from material selection to the way we interact with users and clients. Stephen Goldsmith, of Enterprise Community Partners, argued that designers must be forceful advocates for ecologically responsible practices, even in the face of client opposition. Victoria Beach, also an architect and lecturer on professional ethics, provided compelling analysis for a renewed AIA Code of Ethics that moves from merely maintaining honest business practices, and, instead, emphasizes the profession's service to the public and the architect's responsibility to protect the greater public good. Such a code would provide support for architects who choose to take an ethical stand on a project out of public interest concerns. Unfortunately, no one from the AIA National Ethics Council was at the ethics session to hear these suggestions.

Pessimism, Optimism

As a society, we'll be remembered for what we built, but also for what we didn't build and didn't do. Dr. Ted Landsmark, this year's recipient of the AIA's Whitney M. Young, Jr. Award, told a different LA story in his award address than the one in Architectural Record – a short walk from the historic Millennium Biltmore Hotel in downtown LA will take you not only to the Walt Disney Concert Hall, but also through some of the “worst examples of homelessness that [he had] ever seen.” And while architects spent a week heralding LA's avant-garde stars and upcoming urban design projects, there was very little discussion of the ecological impact and resource challenges of the sprawling metropolitan area, which covers approximately 2,000 square miles.

The 2006 AIA Convention offered a great deal of consternation, but also hope. The Honorable Richard Swett, FAIA, former U.S. Ambassador to Denmark and the only architect to serve in Congress, is on “a crusade” to return architects to a role in shaping public policy. He describes this movement as small but growing, and his workshop on design leadership and advocacy included architects who have also served as educators, public officials and public agency leaders. Each of them spoke of their desire to move beyond the focus on a single building to a stronger effect on the communities in which they lived and worked. The AIA's 150th anniversary initiative, the Blueprint for America, encourages architects and other designers to play an active role in addressing the issues and opportunities of their local communities. And organizations beyond the AIA continue to present models for community service and engagement, as attendees at the Association for Community Design conference also did in LA last week.

A New (Old) Hope

It's not to say that there aren't architects doing great work and trying to provide services responsibly and equitably – but there aren't enough of us committed to this work as a regular and significant part of our business. Most of us spend most of our time chasing the small segment of corporate and institutional dollars, when there is a world of other clients out there who could use our services. Many of us do give away work gratis (for free) to clients with whom we want to gain favor but who can clearly pay, yet don't give it pro bono publico (for the public good). A very common response to discussions of pro bono work is that architects can't afford to do that kind of free service, because they don't make enough money to support it. And yet firms spend amazing amounts of hours and time on proposals and competitions, for which we will never get compensation even if we do get a job out of it. It seems there is a flaw in our current model and thinking about the way that we practice.

Alex Washburn, quoted at the beginning of this issue, worked as a Congressional staffer for the late Senator Daniel Moynihan. Moynihan was a noted advocate of the value of design for the public and championed better design and care of public building resources throughout his political career. Moynihan's words remind us that good design for all people has far-reaching ramifications, and gives us a new way to frame our professional responsibility:

“If we are to restore to American public life the sense of shared experience, trust and common purpose that seems to be draining out of it, the quality of public design has got to be made a public issue because it is a political fact. It is not an efflorescence of elite aestheticism; it is the bone and muscle of democracy, and it is time those who see this begin insisting on it.”

For more points of view, we encourage you to visit these other Convention accounts online:


Archinect AIA Convention Diary:

Architectural Record:

LA Downtown News:

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