With the theme Design With Purpose, the 2014 American Institute of Architects (AIA) National Convention in Chicago drew the largest AIA convention attendance in five years with approximately 20,000 attendees. I was so pleased and honored to have been appointed by 2014 AIA National President Helene Combs Dreiling, FAIA, to serve as the national chairman of the convention, which was held June 26-28. As I collaborated with Dreiling, the AIA national office staff, and AIA Chicago, we strived to have the selection of speakers and programming be current, real, genuine, relevant, purposeful, diverse, and appealing across generations and interest areas.
Dreiling presided over the convention that Stephen Chung, AIA, the host of the television show Cool Spaces! emceed. In the opening general session, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel welcomed attendees and announced that the city will host an inaugural Chicago Architecture Biennial in fall 2015. “The idea of rethinking your space is essential for a city today,” Emanuel said. “People from around the world are now migrating back to cities. In the same way that 100 years ago Chicago was at the epicenter of modern architecture, we are now at the epicenter of rethinking livable, sustainable, and beautiful cities—and your work is essential to think through that effort.”
Chicagoans Jeanne Gang, FAIA, and Theaster Gates both delivered opening keynotes. Gang, a MacArthur Fellow, focused on two large-scale planning efforts that she and her firm are leading. Her plan for the lakefront park called Northerly Island, the former site of the Meigs Field airport near the convention center is now under construction. “It’s an amazing space for escape and learning about nature right in the city. It’s a place for people, a place for habitat. It’s now the largest urban aquatic restoration project in the country,” Gang said. “The radical reinvention of the island shows that architecture is impacted by mass urbanization and climate disruption, with a strong feeling of environmental justice.”
And rather than focus on any one building that she is designing, Gang took a broader view of the role of an architect today. “It’s not only what we design in any given city, because we’re all doing great design. It is what we know, it’s what we say, it’s what we take part in that frankly helps drive change. Purpose is the process,” she said. “We are all in the process of aligning global issues with the opportunities available to all of us in design. Social change is reliant on spatial change, and spatial change is dependent on social change to realize itself.”
Theaster Gates, an artist, entrepeneur, and urban planner, described a few of his key projects that are breathing new life in some of the most economically challenged neighborhoods of Chicago. Gates is the creative director of the Rebuild Foundation and the director of Arts + Public Life at The University of Chicago. He showed a building that he renovated, now called Black Cinema House, that was once a drug house. The change in one building has had a positive effect on the neighborhood. “I was imagining architectural practice shaped by artistic practice,” said Gates. “I would imagine policy as form, but how can we tweak it, or make its will subject to what we believe in? Architecture in a way was raw material to me, and that raw material would allow me to deploy architecture in the same way that I would use a paint brush or a hammer.”
Ed Mazria, AIA, founder and CEO of Architecture 2030, gave attendees an update on the Architecture 2030 Challenge goal of net carbon neutrality by 2030. “Every major scientific organization is telling us that we have a choice: to stay under two degrees centigrade global warming and then bring the planet back to pre-industrial levels, which is the climate we’ve always known, or go on with business as usual,” Mazria said.
Mazria said that by 2030, 900 billion square feet of new and replacement structures will be built in urban areas globally. “That is 60 percent of the entire building stock of the world that will be built within the next two decades. If we get it right, we solve the problem. If we don’t get it right, we lock in emission patterns for 80 years for buildings and 120 years for infrastructure,” he said. “This is a huge opportunity for the global architecture and planning community. The urban built environment’s responsible for 75 percent of all global greenhouse gas emissions.”
Following Mazria, a panel of experts on resilience in design discussed how architects can have a role in a more resilient future at the scale of buildings and urban design. Moderator Frances Anderton, host of KCRW’s DnA: Design and Architecture?, led the discussion with Rachel Minnery, AIA, Ellen Dunham-Jones, AIA, (urban designer and co-author of Retrofitting Suburbia), MacArthur Fellow Majora Carter, and architect Robin Guenther, FAIA (co-author of Sustainable Healthcare Architecture and a principal at Perkins +Will). In the panel, Carter defined resilience: “This is about how do you create happy, healthy communities that are able to take care of themselves and each other. The issue of survivability in any case is social cohesion.”
“There will be disasters, but the issue around survival in any place is social cohesion. Good planning, good architecture, good building can really make that happen. What defines social cohesion? High population density; busy commercial life; vibrant, thriving, open public spaces where people get to know each other,” Carter said. “As the world continues to go through this global ‘weirding,’we are going to have to find more ways to build communities that allow for the most vulnerable among us to survive and thrive. We can create better ways to adapt, not only to the emergency situations that [happen], but also to the social traumas that happen on a day-to-day basis before an emergency does happen.”
“It’s really hard to separate the idea of resilience from the idea of health,” Guenther said. “Resilience thinking really came from the idea of ecosystem resilience, which came from the idea of why some ecosystems survived and thrived when stressed, and others didn’t. [An] individual’s health is embedded in a community. So what you see now are large healthcare organizations not only working on their energy consumption, but also really getting out into their communities, building their resilience, meaning building healthy communities. More healthcare organizations are doing health district planning—overlaying health districts with eco-districts. They are beginning to view their world as being about the health status of their community.”
In the closing keynote, Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh inspired the audience with the stories of both how Zappos “delivers happiness” and his other passion: the Downtown Project in Las Vegas, which is a significant redevelopment of the oldest part of the city as a new hub for tech entrepeneurs to live and work. He moved the Zappos headquarters into the former Las Vegas City Hall in 2013, and is committed to the city beyond his company’s headquarters. With $350 million of primarily his own money, Downtown Project endeavors to remake downtown Las Vegas. Hsieh and his colleagues are thinking through the human aspects of regenerating downtown Las Vegas, honing in on metrics that will accelerate serendipity through “collisions” between residents and outsiders. “Our big bet is that collisions, co-learning, and connectedness will lead to happiness and innovation,” he said. “This isn’t just about downtown Vegas or the Vegas area in general Hopefully we can inspire other cities to reinvent themselves.”
Aware of the role of a large dot-com company and its workforce, Hsieh had visited the corporate campuses of companies like Nike, Apple, and Google. “All those other campuses were great for employees, but were insular. They didn’t integrate or contribute to the community around them. So we thought, what if we turned the entire thing inside out and treated it more like the campus that blends in to the city and encourage our employees to go out and encourage outsiders to come in.”
The convention closed with an emotionally charged presentation of the AIA Gold Medal to Julia Morgan, FAIA. Morgan is honored with the award posthumously, and is the first female recipient. After a video presentation about Morgan, her work, career, and influence on architecture, Dreiling—the third woman to serve as AIA President in 157 years—presented the Gold Medal to Morgan’s grand niece, Ellen B North, and attendees gave a rousing standing ovation. Then, 86-year-old architect Beverly Willis, FAIA, founder of the Willis Foundation delivered a speech in honor of Morgan. Willis noted how Morgan was a contemporary of Frank Lloyd Wright, and had completed a similar number of projects in a long career. Yet Morgan did not seek publicity while Wright has been lauded in architectural history. “We women who graduated in the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s were denied the incredible role model of a successful practitioner. As recently as 1978, the president of the AIA declared to the press that he would never hire a woman architect. On behalf of these women architects, I express our collective and respectful anger,” Willis said. “Historically important women designers are still not in the history books, [but] this is a proud moment for us all.”