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Conventional wisdom: report AIA 2018 in New York

The 2018 AIA National Convention laudably focused on increasing architecture’s diversity and potential to create better cities, but the profession risks being left behind by the construction boom

New York seems to be a building site. Development is changing not just the city’s silhouette, but its economy, the character of its individual neighbourhoods, the relationships between them, and its social structure. The AIA’s 2018 National Convention unfolded around the theme ‘Blueprint For Better Cities’. Whether the construction boom will make New York ‘better’ is a moot point, though it will certainly transform it. But much of the convention’s content was about underlying urban and social issues, not just New York.

Whitney young giving 1968 speech

Whitney young giving 1968 speech

Civil rights leader Whitney Young giving his speech at the AIA’s convention in 1968. Image: The American Institute of Architects Archives, Washington, DC

The construction boom is benefiting architects, architecture and the AIA, noted Carl Elefante, the institute’s president. With 26,000 delegates, this was its largest-ever convention; at 92,000, membership is at its highest since the institute’s foundation in New York in 1857. Architecture graduates enjoy the highest employment rate, though presumably not salaries, across the country. This, said Elefante, gives his members the impetus to ‘dare to be relevant, dare to be accountable, dare to be great!’. Architects can shape the future, and being great, he insisted, means not just creating better buildings, cities and landscapes, but also increasing the profession’s diversity to mirror more closely the society it serves.

A tribute to civil rights leader Whitney Young, who admonished the AIA’s convention 50 years ago in Portland for doing nothing about the social turmoil across the country, was followed by a presentation by Tamara Eagle Bull, the first female Native American AIA fellow. She was followed by David Adjaye whose work draws on and expands the agenda stemming from issues around diversity. 

‘That may help to address paradoxes arising from transformation of cities like New York, where poor districts are becoming rich, rich ones richer and the poor excluded from their habitats altogether’

These keynotes were presented in the Radio City Music Hall, one of the touchstones where white audience began to encounter African-American culture at a time when social segregation was still rife. Much of the action, though, took place at the Javits Convention Center. One session there sketched the story of the centre, designed in 1980 by James Ingo Freed of Pei Cobb Freed as a series of darkened-glass, crudely framed cuboid forms, but lightened, brightened and given a 12-acre green roof in a makeover by FXFOWLE Epstein. 

Approaching the centre on foot (construction lorries have brought traffic to a standstill), brings a glimpse of the challenge that New York’s ongoing transformation poses. The Hudson Yards blocks, for all their setbacks, inclines and plazas, are as anonymous as any ‘International Style’ skyscraper, clustered as if to defend their version of a contemporary city. South from there snakes the High Line. Delight oozes from this totally artificial environment, whose narrowness, seating and planting give it an intimacy that Hudson Yards can never have. 

Davidadje aia2018

Davidadje aia2018

David Adjaye, with backdrop of his pavilion site in Gwangju, South Korea

Teeming with people from across the world, the cacophony of languages makes the High Line perhaps the nearest equivalent to Ellis Island a century ago. But most of the voices belong to tourists rather than immigrants, and for all its qualities it bestows a faintly voyeuristic role on them, as they peer down on the streets or through dirty windows in the old buildings. Even so, it is a pleasure to see the city from this perspective – an example of what BIG’s chief executive Sheela Søgaard meant when she said in her keynote address, ‘something nonsensical can create value and transform’.

Some sessions did tackle urgent urban problems. One contrasted how Paris and New York are developing strategies for resilience, including social consolidation, as well as infrastructure to address climate change. In both cases, active and powerful city government is the key to effective action. The Parisian authorities responded to the migrant, for example, by commissioning a professional team early on and delivering large temporary housing at Porte de la Chapelle, consisting of a large inflatable structure covering four-person modular units by Julien Pellet and Hans-Walter Müller, in four months. In New York, public bodies can also deliver affordable housing efficiently, such as the Via Verde 220-unit development in the Bronx by Dattner and Grimshaw, initiated by a competition to find innovative approaches to housing, and incorporating features and activities that most affordable housing precludes.

Both cities understand the need for symbolism to rub up alongside practical initiatives. In Paris, several pavilions popped up – ludomobiles and ludotheques – where people could play board games while reconnecting with each other and the city’s public realm after the traumatic 2015 attacks. New York has a ‘diversity plaza’ with some planned but increasingly spontaneous programming, infusing the public realm with ideas from varied communities.

Such ideas also emerged in Adjaye’s keynote. His Sugar Hill housing in Harlem provides 155 units for formerly homeless people, while its ground level nurtures a public programme that reflects the area’s history and so helps to reconnect the residents with their city. Even more explicit is the Studio Museum, also in Harlem, which asked him to bring vibrancy, colour and theatricality to the design. The result is an intriguing composition, more solid to the top and ‘crumbling’ towards the bottom to reveal some of its inner workings to the public realm. Adjaye’s work is compelling, marked by a deft ability to conjure almost magical effects with subtle variations to familiar materials and forms. A library in Washington DC (in a very different area to the Mall where his Museum of African American History is), combines transparency and reflection, pulling passers-by into the space, conceptually blurring inside and out, but respecting the need for calm and privacy. His language, too, is intriguing, switching between the ‘archispeak’ of aedicules and volumetrics, to simple, direct and literal, non-architectural words like ‘crumbling’.

‘Dare to be relevant, dare to be accountable, dare to be great!’

The following evening Sheela Søgaard concentrated on a different sort of paradox that runs through the architectural profession: the balance between commercial and design success. Brought in as a business graduate by Bjarke Ingels when BIG was about 60 people, she has played an integral part in its rapid expansion. The growth plan centred on ‘conceptualising, developing and realising great architecture’, but to do this the firm needed to ‘get work and get paid’. BIG was pretty good at the first but not the second, and curing that meant curbing architects’ enthusiasm for giving away the best ideas for nothing while insisting on sound fee agreements. She also advocated moving away from charging by time to charging for value-added, aligning fee income with client benefit. And above all it meant freeing the architects to do what they do best, served by ‘PR, IT, legal, financial, HR’ support.

Other aspects of the firm’s structure are unfinished business. The partnership board is heavily white and male, though it now includes Søgaard and one other woman alongside 15 men. One tier down, the gender balance is 58:42 per cent, reflecting one of the convention’s main themes, that diversity is good for business and that the profession should reflect its society.

That may help to address paradoxes arising from transformation of cities like New York, where poor districts are becoming rich, rich ones richer and the poor excluded from their habitats altogether. Elefante may be right in claiming that the urban age is dawning, but these problems won’t solve themselves. They require technical, legal and financial innovation that may come more readily from more diverse workforces. But unless it happens, it is hard to think that someone, a decade or two hence, won’t look at New York and echo the words of Georges Clemenceau when he visited New Delhi. Looking around the plain at the city’s numerous abandoned predecessors he commented about the emerging colonial capital: ‘This will be the finest ruin of them all.’