The 2017 AIA Convention highlighted developments in smart technology harnessed to connect ideas and spaces, fostering a closer relationship between design and manufacture
Orlando is defined by curves: freeways and slip-roads on the ground, the water-slides, roller-coasters and Ferris wheels of its numerous attractions – garishly illuminated at night – give it a distant approximation to a skyline. Its numerous lakes have defeated any serious attempt to establish that staple of American cities, a grid plan, severely curtailing any chance of having a sense of urbanity. Instead, it is a sea of theme parks with a few vast hotels rising above like crude, banal and ugly rocks, which lap the individual parts of a gigantic convention centre. ‘Which side do you want?’, our taxi driver asked on our first day, ‘you need a cab to get from east to west.’
We wanted the west side, location for the 2017 AIA Convention, rebranded as A’17. Its 14,000 delegates were a few thousand down on last year’s in Philadelphia – ‘a real city’, as some of the black-attired and goatee-bearded among the attendees opined. But whether the host is a ‘real city’ is not the point of these three-day fests. What matters is the content and the connections between ideas, things, technologies and people that they offer. On this count 2017’s outing was pretty successful.
Michelle Obama was the star attraction among the keynote speakers. Her experience of working in planning and regeneration in Chicago lent weight to her comments on cities, essentially that they are messy, complex and expensive and so need investment both public and private. Her comments of the need to include the rights and needs of poor communities in urban development – and the potential for architects to bring this about – were telling. MO is thinking a lot about architecture, these days, incidentally, overseeing Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects’ plans for the Obama Presidential Center.
The roster of keynote speakers also included the foot-stomping Berlin-based African architect Diébédo Francis Kéré, Liz Diller – recently appointed a visiting professor at the Bartlett – a charming pair of graphic designers who work, implausibly, for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and Alejandro Aravena, this year’s Pritzker Prize laureate and last year’s Venice Biennale curator. Diller added a new twist to the familiar story of New York’s High Line, noting how it has become the underpinning for a series of unsavoury marketing campaigns, including one for a new perfume which includes ‘the scents of wildflowers, green grass and urban renewal’. After that, a project described by David Delgado and Dan Goods from NASA, about harnessing ham radio operators over the world to develop enough power to send the message ‘Hi Juno’ to the eponymous spacecraft on its way to Jupiter, seemed almost rational.
The most intriguing point to emerge from the keynotes came from Michael Ford, a panellist in a session compèred by Frances Anderton (who moved from associate editor of the AR to radio stardom in LA). Ford suggested that architecture could be rebased through Hip Hop. As the ‘voice of the voiceless’, it provides a frame for conceiving architectural practice and profession as more diverse and inclusive. The sort of thing he does in his teaching practice, he explained, is to examine the structural stability of breakdancing, freezing a frame and using it as a starting point for design. If Mrs Obama made a worthy case for an institutional, legal and social framework in which architects and architecture could play a part, Hip Hop could invigorate the whole enterprise.
‘Architecture needs to take its place in a recalibration of social beliefs and practices’
How architecture can contribute to social equity was a sinew through the whole programme, but no one identified a ‘magic bullet’ that might deliver it: instead, and more realistically, architecture needs to take its place in a recalibration of social beliefs and practices. What it offers uniquely is its capability to connect ideas and spaces.
Recognising distinguished members of the profession is an important part of the convention. There were 178 new fellows (the total fellowship is about three per cent of the total of 90,000), IM Pei’s 100th birthday was marked and Robert Stern, Postmodernist extraordinaire and former Dean of Yale School of Architecture, deservedly received the Topaz Medallion for his contribution to education. The Institute’s Gold Medal was awarded posthumously to Paul Revere Williams, a talented and highly successful architect who became the first African American member of the AIA in 1932. Among his numerous celebrity clients were Frank Sinatra, Lucille Ball and Barbara Stanwyck, some of whom felt so uncomfortable sitting next to a black man when he was explaining his designs that he perfected an upside-down drawing technique so he could sit opposite them.
In parallel the Chicago Athenaeum Museum of Architecture and Design has its own awards. These were presented in the Orlando Museum of Art – it was nice to know the city had one – with prizes going to architects who deserve to be better known outside the US, such as Curtis Fentress, David Goodman, and the overall laureates Form4 Architecture from San Francisco, who really were crowned with laurel wreaths.
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Many of the seminars and exhibits showed how new technologies are expanding architecture’s scope in many directions. Kone, starting with their new UltraRope – a cable that is 70 per cent lighter than steel and twice as strong, making for faster, taller and more efficient lifts – has brought together four tech devices to re-conceive the passage from front door to destination in a building. The first is smart design, using BIM to eliminate inaccuracy; the second smart controls; the third allows dovetailing of swipe card security with the lifts so you are directed to a lift to your floor; the final is maintenance – all usage is monitored and collected and pooled to monitor conditions, feed an anticipatory regime and diagnose problems before an engineer has to be called out.
Even more far-reaching are developments in VR. Between them, Autodesk, Graphisoft, Bentley and IrisVR are close to developing tools that will allow a seamless system where design, public or client presentation, specification and product selection, transmission of data to subcontractors for fabrication and main contractors for construction management, will all happen within an integration of BIM and VR technologies. By improving communications within the design team, especially between designers and fabricators, the scope for a closer relationship between design and making is vastly enhanced. However, this raises the question of whether using VR too early in the design process will lead clients to fixate on the ‘reality’ of what they are going to get before it is fully conceived.
All this feeds the opportunities for smart manufacturing. A good example of its advantages was presented by Seattle-based LMN Architects, via the practice’s Voxman School of Music for the University of Iowa. A complex building with three auditoria as well as a student commons, rehearsal and teaching spaces, it presented budgetary challenges especially as it was funded from Federal flood relief programmes (a catastrophic Iowa River flood rendered its previous home unusable).
‘Materials themselves are also getting smarter’
LMN’s interest in smart manufacturing led them to propose a cost-saving measure that also became an architectural feature. As partner Stephen Van Dyck explained, pushing the acoustic envelope above the structure to the roof level in the highest and largest of the auditoria enabled elimination of an expensive layer of concrete, opening the opportunity for a smart suspended ceiling. Experimenting furiously in their model shop to produce data for fabrication while simultaneously convincing an initially doubtful contract manager and client, LMN designed a form that conceals the deep beams, distributes sound well and offers a template for all manner of lighting effects – and so becoming an active tool to enhance performance.
Materials themselves are also getting smarter. An especially eye-catching example is View Dynamic Glass, which adds five micron-thick layers to sheets of float glass which, with a low-voltage charge, can change to various shades of darkness. That reduces glare and solar gain, with one demonstration suggesting that a conventionally glazed foyer could, even with air conditioning, reach 89 degrees Fahrenheit when the outside temperature was 96, though with Dynamic Glass it would be a more comfortable 73, without the visual disruption of blinds or shading. The elimination of these helps to offset the fourfold extra cost of the glass, as does the reduced energy load, but benefits in worker comfort are yet to be fully quantified.
Next year’s AIA convention will be in New York, which will go some way to satisfying anyone in need of an urban vibe. But for those whose life is a whirligig of convention centres and theme parks, there were a couple of optimistic harbingers for the future. LMN is working on a couple of convention centres in Cleveland and Washington which integrate the facilities so tightly into the urban fabric that they really do become part of the city. Meanwhile Tomorrowland – a theme park designed by Disney and Grimshaw in Shanghai – shows how advanced manufacturing can bring together the narratives and experiences that Disney wants to offer with a refined architectural aesthetic.
Lead Image: Los Angeles International Airport by Pereira & Luckman and Paul R Williams