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AIA Convention in Atlanta

Convention planners wisely avoided the temptation of promoting icons as the solution to urban ills and looked towards themes that are larger than architecture

With between 15 and 20,000 delegates, the American Institute of Architects’ convention holds up a mirror to the concerns of the profession in the world’s largest economy. Numerous diverging motives for going, the diluting effect of scale and the bewildering variety of experiences from product showcases to narrowly focused seminars may distort what we see in the mirror, but it still offers useful indicators of the context of architectural practice in the US.

This year the theme was ‘impact’ and the venue Atlanta. Miami or Chicago, it was whispered, would have attracted closer to the upper figure of delegates, but architects have made an impact on those cities which they haven’t, pace John Portman, on Atlanta. It could certainly do with some, as it has the highest Gini Coefficient of any metropolis in the US, a population 55 per cent of whom do not graduate from high school and 56 per cent of which is African American. Until recently the answer to urban ills was to allow sprawl, hollowing out central neighbourhoods – apart from a luscious Olmstead-designed villa suburb – and leaving downtown to Portman’s lavish but hollow atria hotels and shopping centres. The city library, a late project by Marcel Breuer, is too tucked away to make a different to the overall character and the congress center itself might have been designed by someone who studied with Paul Rudolph and Herman Hertzberger without quite understanding either.

‘The congress center itself might have been designed by someone who studied with Paul Rudolph and Herman Hertzberger without quite understanding either’

But as the AIA has decided to focus through its not-for-profit arm, the Architects’ Foundation, on resilience, the convention planners wisely avoided the temptation of promoting icons as the solution to urban ills and instead looked towards themes that are even larger than architecture. Amid the plethora of CPD point-clocking sessions on designing out waste and fast-tracking to profit, there were many which explored different aspects of resilience. With eight of the most destructive hurricanes in US history occurring in the last decade, and massive storm damage to two of the country’s most distinctive cities, New Orleans and New York, resilience has become an economic imperative. Repairing hurricane damage has cost $200bn, with a further $430bn factored in for the cost of failing infrastructure. On top of that 100 million Americans live no more than a metre above sea level.

The AIA have allied with former president Bill Clinton and in his keynote address he highlighted climate change as one of the three main challenges facing society: the others being the global instability manifested in ISIS, and inequality. His diagnosis may well be right but where architects really can create impact is in the collision between climate change and inequality, and infrastructure is one locus where they come together. A session called ‘what’s happened to equity’ chaired by architect and Atlanta’s former commissioner for planning and community development Michael Dobbins highlighted the multiple benefits of public transport especially for the urban poor: it reduces greenhouse gas emissions, improves local air quality, provides opportunities for creating small scale economic activity if its stops and hubs are well planned, and above all takes out the need for car ownership, freeing up around $9000 a year for low income families.

Recently Atlanta has begun to embrace urban improvements. A small exhibition associated with the convention at the Museum of Design Atlanta (MODA) featured the Atlanta Beltline, conceived in 1999 by Ryan Gravel, then a student at Georgia Tech and now at Perkins + Will. Starting with an existing 22 mile rail corridor which circles the city, it introduces walking routes and cycle ways as well as a street car system, in landscaped belts which will link 45 of the city’s neighbourhoods. Pleasure, opportunities for exercise and leisure, introducing art and bringing Atlanta’s quantity of public space per resident closer to the norm for US cities stem from the starting point of improving connectivity. Now adopted by the city authorities, it is slowly being built out and as well as attracting at least $10bn of investment it will give Atlanta a fighting chance of increasing quality of life for all its residents.

‘Architects really can create impact in the collision between climate change and inequality, and infrastructure is one locus where they come together’

A survey of the architectural profession’s gender balance raised another side of equity. It consisted of 2,289 respondents, about one third male and two thirds female. Some of the data was intriguing. Average earnings for men and women track each other quite closely for the first 15 years of a career, albeit with men slightly ahead. For the next ten years male earnings increase faster until they stagnate around year 25 and women almost catch up reaching average figures between 30 and 35 years into a career of around $120,000 and $110,000 respectively. Women report lower levels of job satisfaction but measurably more success in salary negotiations than their male counterparts.

A display on the achievements of women within the AIA from the late 19th century onwards showed up another form of equity in the profession. It took 80 years on the timeline of female presence in the architectural profession for Georgia Tech, based in Atlanta and 49th best university in the world according to a recent league table, to graduate its first African American woman from its College of Architecture, Ivenue Love-Stanley. Even now its African American enrolment is only about eight per cent.

But Love-Stanley has gone on to build a successful career. With her husband William Stanley she designed the new home for the Ebenezer Baptist Church, the congregation to which, in an earlier home, Martin Luther King was pastor. It was here, amid the Sweet Auburn Historic District of Atlanta which resounds on all sides with charged African American experiences, that the AIA’s new fellows were inducted. Amid the litany of elevations for serving as public officials and elected politicians, for clarifying specifications and for achievements in education as well as design – including three former super jurors at the World Architecture Festival, Neil Denari, Julie Eizenberg and Jo Noero – it was hard not to remember where we were. Especially as the honourees left to the choir’s serenade of the Gospel hymn ‘Oh Happy Day’.

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