Small Moments from the 2006 AIA National Convention. *Finally, Not Just About the Building.* By Barbara White Bryson.

Of course there is nothing very ordinary about a gathering of thousands of architects but you can’t blame me for expecting the 2006 AIA Convention to be, from my own perspective…well…pretty conventional. So, after anticipating the regular fare of formal discussions, requisite new products and technology tools, I was more than pleasantly surprised that there were a few unconventional things going on.

Buried in the midst of programs like Feng Shui for Residential Architecture and Benchmarking for your Professional Liability Exposures were a few small but illustrative moments that gave me hope that new types of conversations within the architectural profession, conversations about professional and industry change, may not be too far away. For example:

  • When asked how important iconic buildings were to the development or transformation of a city, Thom Mayne pushed back: “It is a pat answer to say that iconic buildings will solve a city’s problems,” he said, “but that is wrong.” He went on to say that the architect must recognize that the city infrastructure, financial, social and political, must be contended with to inspire change. To paraphrase, iconic architecture is important, but architects must address much larger more compelling issues to influence change in a city…and they CAN do that.

  • In a Cost Management seminar attended by hundreds of architects, a comprehensive and informative presentation argued that the architect must not only understand project specific cost drivers but must also be aware of how market conditions can specifically impact aspects of the project. The attendees were directed to www.wbdg.org , the Whole Building Design Guide web page, to find a source for understanding an integrated and comprehensive approach to design.

  • Scott Simpson and Jim Cramer presented their book The Next Architect : A New Twist on the Future of Design¸ examining change in the profession within the business models and design/construction processes…with the provocative message, “Technology Crushes Standards”. Imbedded in the specific and important insights was a clear challenge…”Don’t whine…get going…change is coming”.

  • My dinner partner one evening was former Congressman and Ambassador to Denmark, Richard Swett, author of a book presented at the convention, Leadership by Design: Creating An Architecture of Trust. Ambassador Swett, an architect by training is an advocate of architects using their knowledge and leadership skills for the greater good, for getting involved…not limited to designing buildings.

  • In the presentation, Moving to BIM, A Progress Report, this software technology was not just presented as the next great design gadget. Instead, these presenters, including Phil Bernstein from Autodesk and architects from HOK, Stubbins Associates, and RTKL, recognized that BIM will certainly bring with it profound change in the entire process of design and construction.

All this stimulated, intrigued, and excited me as I moved among the 23,000 energetic convention participants. Change is coming; change in the way we do business; change in the way we engage our clients and communities; and change in the way we consider ourselves. I think it ironic and wonderful that, at long last, after decades of retreating from liability and protecting the profession from change, that we as architects can finally, once again, consider what we can contribute to the wider world beyond buildings. Yes, we should be involved in politics; not to protect but to change. Yes, we should consider public service; not to add an architectural amenity but to solve bigger problems. Yes, we should change our businesses; not just so we can design our masterpieces but so we can create value for our clients, their employees, and their missions.

As I watched Bill Morrish talk about sustainability in From “Drain” to “Harvest”, I wondered whether the interest in sustainability had finally taught our profession about the opportunities inherent in taking risks in much the same way that asbestos abatement had frightened architects away decades ago. Architects have the training to see potential and opportunity. We are taught to be problem solvers. With these skills, if we look outward from the profession, we can also contribute, like the legal profession, in all sorts of ways; in business, in industry change and in public service. Cities and businesses aren’t just about the buildings; they are about people, politics, infrastructure and, finances. And, as I noted during my happy journey to Los Angeles, so are architects.

—Barbara White Bryson