At Grassroots 2018, leaders urge architects to start local
AIA's annual leadership event reinforced one message for architects and component executives who want to exert influence: Find a seat at the local table
The AIA board members, guest panelists, and keynote speakers who took the stage at Grassroots 2018 in San Diego didn’t call upon architects just to lead. They implored them to be influencers.
AIA’s annual leadership event featured three days of inspiration and insight from mayors, developers, and urban planners, all of whom discussed expanding roles for architects in the reinvigoration of cities and community growth. The consensus: Start local. Find your niche, build your confidence, reinforce your value, and additional opportunities will emerge.
This was never clearer than during the mayors’ panel on the event’s final day. Two former and one current mayor joined Alan Greenberger, FAIA, Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the Drexel University Lindy Institute for Urban Innovation, to share ideas about how architects could carve out places within—or atop—local leadership.
Greenberger, who served as Philadelphia’s deputy mayor for economic development under Mayor Michael Nutter, described his road to such a lofty perch: from volunteer design advocacy group to city planning commission to chief planner to the deputy position. “It allows you to see a world of working that is very different—and much bigger—than the world most of us occupy routinely,” he said.
When asked if architects are “even in the story” when it comes to his own daily duties, Tom Tait, the mayor of Anaheim, California, responded with a dispirited “not really.”
“It’s a big challenge to be in the political arena with certain people who don’t think the same way we think.” - Liz Gibbons, AIA
“Architects, by their nature, are problem-solvers,” Tait said. “You think they’d be at the table all the time. But for whatever reason, you’re dealing with a lot of lawyers.”
The two former mayors—Charles “Chuck” Travis, FAIA, of Cornelius, North Carolina, and Liz Gibbons, AIA, of Campbell, California—emphasized that the solution can be found right outside your front door.
“If you want to really make a difference, get involved locally,” Travis said. “We need people who can come in, listen to a lot of different viewpoints, gather information, and make the right decision. And we’re all used to being critiqued on a daily basis; that’s how we were trained. Taking a hard stance and then supporting it is what we were taught to do—so why not be out there leading in these conversations?”
That doesn’t mean it’s easy for architects to make the leap. Gibbons noted her frustrations in working with colleagues who don’t make use of design thinking. “It’s a big challenge to be in the political arena with certain people who don’t think the same way we think,” she said. “We are trained to make use of this broad, holistic thought process, which I find—and fortunately, my colleagues have found—so rewarding.”
That said, Gibbons reminded the audience that “if you aren’t at the table, you’re on the table. We’ve got to have the communication chain open.”
AIA leaders speak
Their sentiments were echoed in the introductions by 2018 AIA President Carl Elefante, FAIA, and 2019 AIA President William J. Bates, FAIA.
“Architecture is experiencing what I like to call a 'relevance revolution,'” Elefante said. “As architects, we must recognize our role in addressing pressing social, economic, and environmental issues, because resolving them is impossible without also confronting the conditions of the built environment.”
Bates, the Grassroots 2018 chair, made it clear to the hundreds of architects and component leaders in attendance that their expertise isn’t just valuable; it’s necessary.
“Design thinking is often marginalized, while finance and politics drive the agenda,” he said. “By inserting our creative talents at the beginning of policymaking, we can create a healthier world.
“If we become agents of influence,” he added, “we will enhance the quality of life for society and our profession.”
After Grassroots 2017 called upon architects to lead, Bates used this year’s stage to address emerging challenges of the last 12 months that could be answered through design thinking. Yet if architects lack a role in the decision-making process, they’ll lose the opportunity to contribute, despite their voices carrying weight.
“By inserting our creative talents at the beginning of policymaking, we can create a healthier world.” - William J. Bates, FAIA, 2019 AIA President
“Influence is really about power,” he said. “Power is neither good or bad, but it can be easily abused or neglected. And power is a language that we must become literate in. To have influence, we have to master that language.
“My challenge to everyone in this room,” Bates said, “is to use their influence, claim a seat at the table, and make change happen.”
Influencing by example
The architect’s role in building communities was addressed in a panel of urban planners from around the country. Moderated by Daniel Hart, FAIA, the panel included Sam Assefa, director of Seattle's Office of Planning and Community Development; David Dixon, FAIA, vice president of Stantec’s Urban Places team; and Toni Griffin, Assoc. AIA, professor in practice of urban planning at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.
“I was very surprised, when traveling and meeting new architects, to find out how hesitant they were to take stands,” Dixon said. “They were concerned that taking a stand might harm them, that clients would retaliate. What I found in Boston—as a younger architect—was that taking stands allowed us to command respect. We had stature; we had credibility.
“Whatever career I’ve had was launched by activism,” he added. “The city of Boston began to hire me as a consultant because I was recognized for saying what I believed. Architects can make a profound difference over time because people really listen to the stands we take, perhaps even more than we realize.”
Griffin revealed how, early in her career, she came to understand the forces that shape a city, and that her goal to improve urban environments—like her hometown of Chicago—would be better served by interacting with them.
“Architects can make a profound difference over time because people really listen to the stands we take, perhaps even more than we realize.” - David Dixon, FAIA
“As a trained professional, I was starting to see the city beyond just buildings,” she said. “I was beginning to see not just where I placed things as an architect but who got what.” As she transitioned from architecture to planning, “I became particularly interested in putting myself in the spaces and at the tables with the people who I saw shaping cities.”
William Taylor, the founding editor of Fast Company, closed Grassroots 2018 by relaying stories of “fast-moving” businesses that are invigorating areas like banking and mortgage lending by tossing out old ideas and preconceived notions.
“We are living in a world where ordinary simply is not an option,” he said. “People are hungry for a deeper and authentic sense of humanity,” and it’s time for architects to determine what they can bring to clients and cities that no one else can.
Perhaps the most profound sentiment came from Marcia J. Cantarella, Ph.D., daughter of civil rights leader Whitney M. Young Jr. In commemorating the 50th anniversary of his landmark keynote address at the 1968 AIA Convention, Cantarella noted that his speech “rings as true now as it did then.
“But you have the power to push back,” she said, “and find the examples where a more diverse landscape has made for a better and more valuable community.”
Steve Cimino is a Los Angeles-based writer and editor with a focus on architecture and design.