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Beyond Borders

The AIA delegation to the UIA World Architecture Congress in South Africa will visit the “Otherwhere”

By Kim A. O'Connell

In the decade between 2001 and 2011, gross billings from international work among AIA member firms doubled. Half of all large firms now have international projects, and even the smallest firms are more likely than ever to have clients, investors, or partners abroad. In the 2012 AIA Firm Survey, 25 percent of firms not currently pursuing international work said that they are interested in doing so. And according to the 2014 AIA Foresight Report, the global flow of investment is going to triple in the next decade. Issues of economy, sustainability, resilience, and public health transcend borders, and architects want to do the same.

In recognition of this new reality, the AIA is sending a delegation to the International Union of Architects (UIA) World Congress, a triennial event that will be held this year in Durban, South Africa, Aug. 3–7. “It's like the U.N. of architects,” says AIA Resident Fellow Mary Ann Lazarus, FAIA, who is involved in the UIA’s Responsible Architecture program and a member of the delegation that will focus on sustainability and design and health issues. “Architects play a critical role in the discussion about where the built environment intersects with health and wellness. Architects are facilitators, and we are visionaries in that we can visualize a better state of living. We're very open to hearing what others have to say.”

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Durban, South Africa. Image courtesy of Kierran Allen Photography, Prakash Bhika.

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This year’s conference theme is “Otherwhere,” which the organizers describe as “looking elsewhere for other ways of creating a better future.” A series of meetings, plenary sessions, and informal talks will focus three subthemes: resilience, ecology, and values. Information will be shared through what the organizers call “an unashamedly African lens,” including sessions that emphasize how African architecture is connected to context and the environment, and recognizing Africans “as equals in defining space,” according to conference materials.

“There is so much to learn from our colleagues and counterpart organizations around the world,” says AIA President Helene Combs Dreiling, FAIA. “Many of them are facing the same challenges we are: an aging and retiring generation of architects, difficulty engaging younger generations, and architecture students taking alternative paths after graduating. So it only makes sense to work together, rather than for each country to reinvent the wheel.”

Global responsibilities

Although the United States has certainly been a leader in sustainable design, the U.S. architecture profession must also broaden its view of environmentally conscious development and be more involved in global issues of climate change and sustainability, according to AIA President-Elect Elizabeth Chu Richter, FAIA, who will be attending the UIA Congress on behalf of the AIA.

“Water quality, air quality, and climate change are all big issues that are not specific to us in the U.S.,” she says. “We need everyone to be part of this conscientiousness, and we need to work together to build cities that are much more sustainable. Water, for instance, reaches all shores.”

Lazarus points out that while rural Africa provides lessons in vernacular approaches to architecture that emphasize passive sustainable strategies, Durban is at the same time a major city and business center that will offer opportunities to learn about how developing countries can seek a higher standard of urban living without doing further damage to the environment.

In addition to sustainability and public health, the AIA delegation intends to focus on issues of education and professional practice, including emerging professionals. These days, it's essential that architectural education be portable, says Kate Schwennsen, FAIA, co-director of the UIA Education Commission, former AIA President, and current chair of the Clemson School of Architecture. “As architectural practice has become global, so too does architectural education need to recognize its global responsibilities,” she says. “It is in all of our interests to advance the quality and transportability of architectural education around the globe, increasing access to high-quality education globally and simplifying requirements for qualified architecture for cross-border practice.”

“My generation of architects will have to practice globally, no question about it,” says Andrew Caruso, AIA, a recent recipient of the AIA Young Architects Award and a former human capital strategist at Gensler. Caruso is about to begin a graduate program in international economics at Johns Hopkins University’s European campus in Bologna, Italy. “Whether the project location is global or not, increasingly the talent, the resources, and more will be a product of the global economy.” Caruso adds that increasing the mobility of credentials and making it easier to practice across borders are major topics he wants to address in Durban.

Building relationships

Another key aspect of attending the UIA Congress, according to several members of the AIA delegation, is the opportunity for face-to-face meetings and casual conversations that cement relationships that might not happen otherwise. “In many parts of the world, the relationship—[or] trust—must come before progress can be made on the business side of things,” adds Dreiling. “Engaging as a community and focusing on what brings us together—rather than what sets us apart—is a key step in that process.”

Caruso says that he remains in close contact with architects working in other countries whom he met six years ago at the UIA Congress in Turin, Italy, and he hopes the same thing will happen this year.

“For someone like me who's invested in being global, it’s amazing to see so many people come together and do the business of our profession globally,” he says. “It’s the experience of a lifetime."

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Visit the AIA’s UIA World Congress webpage.

Visit the UIA World Congress website.


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