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2016 AIA Convention in Philadelphia

This year’s edition discussed social justice and new technologies, antiskyscrapers and cultural systems, featuring Neri Oxman and Rem Koolhaas as keynote speakers

‘What I like about architecture’, said Philadelphia’s mayor Jim Gannon in opening remarks at the AIA convention in the ‘city of brotherly love’, is that ‘you can touch it. You can use it. Politics is not always like that’. In Philadelphia, where almost every brick, stone and tile in the historic district has a sign that explains its role in the American revolution and the subsequent, even more extraordinary struggle to create a constitution for a continent-sized country, it is hard not to feel that when touching and using architecture you are also touching and using politics. The various ways in which that relationship might work itself out was a constant stream in the three-day meeting of 20,000 architects.

Imagination + [sic, ie imagination plus] was the convention’s main rubric, and to top and tail it were keynote sessions about fictitious politics. Replacing the initially billed Kevin Spacey was another actor who is about to play a fictional US president, Julia Louis-Dreyfus (spoiler alert: her character in Veep assumes, at least temporarily, the presidency), interviewed by local radio host Terry Gross. Scion of a billionaire French family, she explained the house she and her husband are building depends on a very intuitive relationship with their architects Marmol Radziner. Her concern at being able to pay for it suggests it may be remarkable.

Working on Veep has another though vicarious connection to architecture. The profanities and obscenities she clearly enjoys voicing – ‘jelly-green-jizz-face’ being one she particularly relished – are of course written by AJ columnist Ian Martin. But her favourite was the similarity between a proposed course of action and using a croissant as a dildo: ‘it won’t do the job but it will make a mess’. All this in front of an audience of more than 8000.

‘What I like about architecture is that you can touch it. You can use it. Politics is not always like that’

The concluding session was Rem Koolhaas, whose interlocutor Mohsen Mostafavi deftly drew out some flesh on Koolhaas’ often elliptical utterances on architecture, politics, culture and society. But in between were numerous other interpretations of the relationship between architecture and politics, from social justice and equality, through the role of the profession in a complex society to new technological opportunities for design.

Philadelphia is prime territory for investigating how architecture can deliver social justice. One panel session, Design in Philadelphia with Katie Gerfen from Architect magazine, Thomas Dallessio of Next City and the Philadelphia Inquirer’s architecture critic Inga Saffron, explained how Philadelphia has recovered from being one of those cities written off in the 1970s as the middle class and associated jobs and services moved to the suburbs, largely through recognizing the inherent quality of what existed leavened with high quality new design.

Weiss Manfredi’s striking nano tech building for the University of Pennsylvania and Snohetta’s library for Temple University deserved their mentions for their engagement with the public realm despite their private functions. But the real achievement lies in the city centre where clients, occupiers and developers, including academic institutions in this university-rich city, have all bought into the idea of animating ground floors – which in turn enlivens pavements and encourages the feeling of a pedestrian-friendly environment. Another session revealed that up to $60m of design services have been delivered pro bono in the city.

Nano tech building for the University of Pennsylvania by Weiss Manfredi

Nano tech building for the University of Pennsylvania by Weiss Manfredi

Nano tech building for the University of Pennsylvania by Weiss Manfredi

Social justice also includes the make-up of the profession. In a session on ‘recognising women as architects, not female architects’, Wanda Lau appropriately placed the issue of gender in a wider context which includes architecture’s rather poorer recent record in encouraging engagement across class and race – and the varying degrees of difficulty faced in different parts of the world. La lotta continua, but its terms of engagement are more complex and fluid than sometimes acknowledged.

In awarding its Gold Medal to Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown – belatedly if nonetheless welcome – the AIA did recognize one woman as an architect. Physically frail but still intellectually fierce she took the stage to explain her and by extension her sex’s struggle for recognition: her degree of success, she admitted, was ‘worth being a witch for’. She is of course half of a remarkable couple who has transformed how we think about architecture, recognizing that it is a discipline which mixes the high cultural references of Complexity and Contradiction with the realization in Learning from Las Vegas that that city is ‘almost all right’.

‘Architecture is by definition collaborative in a few most other visual arts are not, and collaboration including clients, occupiers and users is far more creative when coming from diverse strands’

The first ever joint award of the Gold Medal also recognized the depth of collaboration in creativity. Architecture is by definition collaborative in a few most other visual arts are not, and collaboration including clients, occupiers and users is far more creative when coming from diverse strands. The late and lamented Robert Guttmann, still architecture’s most perceptive professional sociologist, recognized this decades ago, but only now is it really flowering.

A manifestation of this is the annual Architecture Firm Award, which this year went to LMN from Seattle. Founded in 1979, and with a reputation for designing with environmental concerns in mind, they have grown to 160 people and deliberately kept together in one office as their work has spread across the US from the Pacific North West, for the valuable cross fertilization between generations, individuals and backgrounds which that fosters. As well as working with the environment their projects show a notable ability to contribute to the public realm and so encourage another level of interaction.

Tobin Center for the Performing Arts by LMN Architects

Tobin Center for the Performing Arts by LMN Architects

Tobin Center for the Performing Arts by LMN Architects

Although the AIA made a television ad to promote architecture with the public which ran in many of the debates between presidential candidates, much of the convention is hardcore cpd-point collecting. Both indicate the thoroughness with which the AIA under its CEO since 2011 Robert Ivy is focusing on furthering the profession. The range of subjects includes biophilia and stormwater management to rock star presentation skills for architects, but a great deal of it relates to how architects work with themselves, other consultants and clients.

Autodesk’s and Yale’s Phil Bernstein explored how technology affects and empowers architectural practice. With up to 50 billion screen-enabled devices connected to the cloud expected in the next few years, we are, argued Bernstein, entering an era of connectivity, following earlier ones of optimisation and documentation (all depending on digital technology). Connection benefits performance and especially prediction of performance. The significance of this, he continued, is to flip the traditional model of architect/client relationships from ‘the architect saying “trust me, give me the money and I will use my judgment to deliver and complete a building within that [sum of] money”’, to one where accurate and verifiable predictions allow architects to ‘make promises based on performance’. The subjectivity of judgment is superseded by the objectivity of measurable achievement.

Bernstein is quick to point out that this does not supersede the architect. ‘Overlaying the logic of construction over the logic of design’ still leaves space for imagination, though it is more focused and directed towards outcome. And, if ‘architects are able to articulate their values in ways clients will pay for based on promises and prediction’, as he foresees, it could actually end up empowering and enriching the profession.

library for Temple University by Snohetta

library for Temple University by Snohetta

Library for Temple University by Snohetta

The most flamboyant flowering of technology came in a keynote from Neri Oxman of MIT’s media lab. An architect who also studied at the AA, she rather breathlessly took her audience through a mind-bending series of images. Her underlying point is that digital design can interact with biology both to speed it up and direct it to specific uses and, in even more radical overlaying of the logic of design and construction this interface can eliminate discreet elements for an organic whole. There’s no doubting the brilliance of thought and beauty of imagery, but the applications so far are hardly likely to figure in solutions to housing or health crises: a wrist grip for carpel tunnel syndrome and a pavilion made by a willing labour force, responsive to direction of 6500 silkworms. As Oxman said, the media lab is a rather strange place, but as a demonstration of imaginative power her talk was magnificent: the audience of 8000 rose to give a standing ovation.

‘Overlaying the logic of construction over the logic of design still leaves space for imagination’

Rem Koolhaas though is grounded in a more diverse intellectual context and although far from dismissive of technology, is more interested in accidental and deliberate human actions, and the accidental and deliberate consequences that spring from them, than the cerebral world of digitally-directed silkworms. Delirious New York, the book which in 1978 brought him to international attention, was a retroactive manifesto for the enormous body of evidence of the logical and illogical, sensible and insane things that people get up to when piled onto a small island. That opening salvo, he showed the need to open up the multiplicity of interpretations of cultural systems. That makes him resistant to the concept of iconic architecture which ignores the depth of collaboration necessary to create sophisticated buildings, though paradoxically his buildings often acquire this status despite their sophisticated relationships with culture, use and context. These phenomena all contribute to streams, networks and systems that do not need to be physical, digital or biological, though they can be, around which we live our lives.

With time to explain his response to this complexity in only one project, he picked the CCTV building in Beijing. In a zone which would be home to numerous tall buildings, he set out to design an ‘anti-skyscraper’: its distinctive inclined legs, capped by a horizontal element, contain all manner of media spaces, from recording and broadcasting studios to a ‘creative writing tower’. It is, he said, ‘a logical statement of what architecture can offer’, and a side effect of this logic is a political statement. In a country ‘obsessed with continuity and stability’ it ‘looks different from each direction’, giving it an ‘unstable identity’. Fed by Mohsen Mostafavi’s perceptive questioning, he may not have explained what it is to touch and use architecture, but he did indicate what might make it worth touching and using.