Open for business in new ways
Centers for architecture that thrive on interaction are retooling to retain their audiences
None of the roughly two dozen centers for architecture in the US has been immune to the struggles the pandemic and economic downturn have caused for museums and galleries. Their shared mandate, at the intersection of public education and professional community-building, has never been more important. But the dilemma they share with countless institutions that thrive on interactivity has never been more vexing. Three heads of architecture centers discuss their challenges and how they’ve pivoted to retain their audiences and convene architects, art lovers, parents, and campers during a public health crisis.
Center for Architecture, New York
The Center for Architecture, as a cultural force, has been there for inquiry, inspiration, and healing in many ways. It’s a community that extends beyond AIA members to all who care about the built environment, and so over the last six months, we’ve looked at some of the core things we do at the center—from exhibitions to programming to education. We are celebrating the 10th anniversary of Archtober this year and, as in all years, our center serves as the convener for what has become the premier architecture festival in New York.
Our center has also been focused on K-12 education, and the team pivoted in record time to make our programs available virtually—starting with virtual after-school programs, then the summer programs, which were mostly sold out in the end, and then our “Architecture at Home” program, which asks kids to observe what they see from their windows, observe street patterns, and identify architectural styles. So much of our K-12 programming is tactile, so our team thought of a way to pack up kits and send them out to people who signed up. Another big part of the center is the exhibitions and our physical space. We took the time to do something we’ve always wanted to do, which is put our past exhibitions online, starting with last year’s Close to the Edge on the birth of Hip Hop Architecture.
We’d planned to do a big show this fall, as we always do, and even before the pandemic hit, the theme was Visualize NYC 2021, which I think is an important part of resilience—to imagine what thriving looks like and taking steps to get there. Visualize NYC 2021 comes at a really important time for the city, too, since 2021 will be a mayoral election and an unprecedented turnover in city council seats. This virtual exhibition is a huge chance for us to explore our mandate to guide citizens, voters, and new candidates on the issues we think are important, from equity and public space, to coastal resilience and sustainability and carbon, to affordable housing—and it’s focused on demystifying data and making numbers real to people.
—Benjamin Prosky, Assoc. AIA, Executive Director, New York Center for Architecture and AIA New York Chapter
Center for Architecture, Sarasota
We started the Center for Architecture as a way to help save the building we’re in, which was completed in 1959-60. It’s one of the very few of its kind still standing of the Sarasota school of architecture, and it’s adaptable to this environment. It was originally designed for a furniture store, so it has wonderful, big windows, and in 2013, we began the process of saving it. Renovations lasted through 2015, and we opened in September that year. We’ve hosted traveling exhibits, we’ve created our own, and so we have a good track record, and we’re on the National Register of Historic Places.
We had a great plan for this coming season, which went by the wayside after COVID, but we were able to come up with a new slate of programs. One of them is an exhibit of the AIA Gulf Coast chapter’s award winners. We’ve also got a competition on tiny houses going on right now, with a fair number of entrants, including a mix of students and also licensed architects. It’ll hang in the gallery next spring. We also have another exhibit coming up called “Designing Sarasota: An Architectural History,” which covers everything from Native American mounds to today’s architects.
With these and all of our future plans, we’re working along a new horizon line in terms of virtual programming. We’ve set up the gallery to accommodate people in a way that follows distance protocols, but virtual programming has become very important to us. We really have to push this year to meet people where they are, especially if they can’t physically come by and participate or browse. Survival for us, as a physical center for architecture, will be a matter of both how much people care about preservation in light of coastal resilience and how well we can adapt to in-person and virtual programming. Simple as that. It means having a presence online, it means being part of walking tours, it means being part of trolly tours. But it also means staying on this path of awareness and action around rising sea levels so we can continue to celebrate our community of architects.
—Hilary Gardner Keaton, Gallery Manager, Center for Architecture Sarasota
Columbus Center for Architecture and Design
Our center is in the Lazarus Building in what was the premier department store downtown. It’s massive, and a beautiful, adaptive reuse project by Schooly Caldwell here in Columbus, and we have 10 windows in a highly visible and trafficked area for pedestrians. We have the Columbus College of Art and Design, as well as The Limited, which is based here, and so we have a big design community and a huge creative economy. From the beginning, we’ve wanted to be the umbrella to capture all of these design processionals, to collaborate, to share best practices, and I think the center for architecture and design has become a natural extension of those interests.
Through the pandemic, we’ve done virtual forums as part of our Design Month. We've got a cool photography exhibit that people can view through our giant windows. But what has helped us through this pandemic is that not everything has been, or is going to be, virtual. We held our signature architecture camp this summer by retrofitting our space with separate classrooms using health protocols, and then retraining our volunteers to use those protocols. Although we usually have 125 kids and we were down to 45, the camp was a success, and I think it helped those kids and their parents safely do something that felt normal. One camper had so much fun, her mother asked if she could come back the following week. It was amazing.
Flexibility is key. We’re just analyzing as we go. We’re taking it one day at a time. We came up with a cool scavenger hunt in November, which is something that parents and kids can do downtown for individual pods and families. We give them a map, there are clues, there are markers, and we’re really excited. But it’s not just about reinventing our programs. It’s about maintaining community outreach for us. We have a very strong scholarship program for our campers, and it’s important to have some continuity for them. It gets to something bigger, especially in cities like Columbus, and as we re-urbanize our city cores, we have to make sure we’re encouraging a sense of community and letting everyone know that architects represent all the sectors of our society, and that architecture can make a positive difference. As I look ahead, we’re taking it one day at a time, and we have so much synergy with our volunteers and our partners that I think where there is a will, there is a way.
—Sarah Bacha, Managing Director, Columbus Center for Architecture and Design
New York Center of Architecture