Architects called to design and lead at Grassroots 2017

Carl Elefante Grassroots 2017

2018 President-elect Carl Elefante, FAIA, hosted AIA's annual chapter leadership retreat in Washington, DC.

In an uncertain legislative, economic, and political landscape, architects are uniquely positioned to improve their communities while bolstering their businesses

At Grassroots 2017 in Washington, DC, AIA leadership affirmed two top priorities for the year: increase demand for architectural services and build capacity to satisfy that demand. But also mentioned throughout was the need, in this uncertain landscape, for architects to place increased importance on supporting each other and the profession.

AIA's annual chapter leadership retreat began with statements from 2017 AIA President Thomas Vonier, FAIA; AIA CEO Robert Ivy, FAIA; and 2018 President-elect Carl Elefante, FAIA, all of whom emphasized the need to respond to a changing world.

“We heard your post-election feedback,” Vonier said. “We are working to advance our country's quality of life and protect the public's health, safety, and welfare. With a record membership of more than 90,000, we have the potential to be a loud and influential voice. But that takes all of us.”

As such, the focus for 2017 is to further illustrate the necessity of architects in our current world climate, and reinforce what AIA stands for as a leader in the profession.

“Key to all of our actions are our values,” Ivy said, referencing AIA's recently released values statement and statement on immigration and visa restrictions.

More than anything, there was a call to answer the challenges ahead. Elefante noted that by 2050 the world population is projected to reach 10 billion, which will test our resources considerably and force a reexamination of how we work, build, and live. “Will architecture pass that test?” he asked.

“Because the built environment is not simply buildings, but the potential to solve real-world problems through design.” - Catherine Pugh, mayor of Baltimore

Through the Paris Agreement and the New Urban Agenda, the design community has exerted a growing influence on our future. But, as Elefante imparted, there are still opponents of global matters like climate change that need to be overcome to make a genuine impact.

“We cannot protect health, safety, and welfare,” he said, “without dealing with the realities of science.

“We are an example to the world,” he added, “and we have work to do together.”

Coalitions change policy

They were followed by a brief video message from Dr. Joan Clos, executive director of the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat), who addressed the role of architecture in confronting challenges in the developing world.

“I think that architecture needs to recover its relationship with urbanism,” he said. "Architecture should not get isolated in the egocentric admiration of its own achievements.” His full remarks can be found online.

Peter Calthorpe, architect and principal at Calthorpe Associates in San Francisco, then spoke about urbanism as the core of social, environmental, and economic issues that plague not only city dwellers but the world as a whole.

“The urban core pulls all of these things together and moves the needle in a significant way,” he said. “Everyone in this room knows what should be done—understanding how to connect the dots is key.”

Calthorpe highlighted the need for coalition building as a catalyst for changes in policy, stating that urban issues are world issues, and solving them on the city scale will have major implications for everyone.

“Cities are grand solutions,” he said, “and architects should also be urban designers.”

Pep Archi-Talks

2015 AIA President Elizabeth Chu Richter, FAIA, subsequently introduced a series of Archi-Talks, four TED-esque addresses on topics of major importance to today's architects. The speakers—walkability expert Jeff Speck; Jean Carroon, FAIA, a principal of Goody Clancy; Michael Berkowitz, president of 100 Resilient Cities (100RC); and Tom Dallessio, president, CEO, and publisher of Next City—all delivered lightning-round observations on the key challenges facing cities and the viable opportunities facing architects.

“The environmental movement has become the pro-urban, walkable movement,” opened Speck, observing how issues have merged as we gain a better understanding of how design impacts personal and ecological health.

“With a record membership of more than 90,000, we have the potential to be a loud and influential voice. But that takes all of us.” - Thomas Vonier, FAIA, 2017 AIA President

Carroon agreed, noting that “'Reduce, reuse, recycle,' the mantra of the Sierra Club, is now our mantra.”

Berkowitz and Dallessio also touched on the same topics, reiterating that while cities are a hotbed of design-centric concerns, they're often more reactionary than proactive.

In particular, Berkowitz relayed how Paris had applied to the 100RC program with a strong environmental agenda—until 2015's terrorist attacks and a refugee crisis changed everything. Suddenly their definition of ”urban resilience” was altered drastically, emphasizing that, for reasons both within and out of their control, “cities rarely know what to plan for next.”

What design can do

The event's second day featured keynote speaker Catherine Pugh, the mayor of Baltimore and founder of the Baltimore Design School. She spoke about her city's infrastructure needs, reflecting on the importance of “finding common ground where you can” when it comes to making necessary improvements.

“Because the built environment is not simply buildings,” she said, “but the potential to solve real-world problems through design.”

Pugh recognized how architects have a “unique ability to create change for the better,” sharing that community architects and AIA Baltimore have already committed substantial time and effort to invigorating downtrodden local buildings. “When I think about a city that once had 44,000 boarded-up houses, and now is down to about 30,000 boarded-up houses, it reinforces how much we need your design capacity and capabilities.”

And while her focus was on Baltimore's growth and revitalization, she understands that what's good for her city is also good for the nation and the world. “Cities are uniquely positioned to implement and scale best practices to serve constituents,” she said, “and these decisions can improve communities well beyond our border.”

No matter the speaker, the message was clear: Action is needed, and this profession is ready. As Vonier said in his introduction, “It is time to step up. It is time to act. As architects, community builders, and agents of change, we can make a difference.”

Steve Cimino is the digital content manager at AIA.

Image credits

Carl Elefante Grassroots 2017

Sonnie Mason

Carl Elefante Grassroots 2017

Sonnie Mason

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