Architects constantly evangelize about the power of place and, in particular, those places where people can gather to learn and share experiences with each other. During the last decade, AIA chapters in over a dozen cities have played a major part in turning that strength of place to their advantage by creating “centers for architecture.” In addition to giving AIA members, planners, engineers, landscape architects, and designers a physical place to gather, centers are drawing thousands of visitors, potential clients, and members of the media.

“These centers allow a community to meet, and we define our community as ‘members of the AIA, architects who are not yet members, and anyone curious about architecture and design,’ ” says Margie O’Driscoll, Hon. AIACC, Executive Director of AIA San Francisco. “Our programming is diverse; we host programs with landscape architects, multimedia artists, futurists, writers, and politicians. If there’s a connection with the architecture and design community, we have a place for you to engage the design community and the general public.”

“We don’t ever think of the New York Center for Architecture as a ‘headquarters,’ or a space where architects only talk to architects,” adds Rick Bell, FAIA, executive director of AIA New York. “You have to create a buzz that goes beyond the membership.”

The fine print

While the impetus for the development of these centers has come from local AIA chapters, legally, the centers are neither owned nor governed by those chapters. Some chapters may rent office space from the centers they backed, but the centers are nonprofit entities organized as charitable organizations under a different section of the IRS tax code from the one that governs AIA chapters. Centers have their own bylaws and boards of directors. Chapters, on the other hand, are organized as “business leagues” whose purpose is to promote the profession of architecture.

Another very important distinction involves how money is raised. Charitable organizations can often get public-project funding for which AIA chapters are not eligible. And private donors may receive tax deductions for gifts given to architecture centers that they would not receive had they made a similar donation to a local AIA chapter.

Donors and tax advantages aside, programming is what makes these centers succeed. Most centers present a mixture of lectures, professional meetings, and continuing education programs that can include groups other than architects. These are almost always anchored by rotating exhibitions.

“If you were to look at successful programs from center to center,” says Michael Wood, executive director of the Association of Architecture Organizations, “they are drastically different. They are responding to the norms and the cultural programming in each city.”

This diversity of ideas is often enabled by the fact that, in addition to architects, the centers’ boards of directors may include builders, developers, landscape architects, engineers, and graphic designers. Partnering with these groups is appropriate at a time when integrated project delivery has architects, consultants, and builders working together earlier than ever.

“When the centers are able to hit on some strong partnerships, those probably have the greatest impact on showing how the educational center can advance important causes for architecture,” Wood says. “To a great degree, success also depends on the talents and the interests of the staffs and directors running those centers, as well as the volunteers.”

Location, location, location

Of course, even the most imaginative programming won’t draw a crowd if it is difficult for people to get to a center. And grabbing people off the street who never intended to visit an architecture center is one of the major attractions of a storefront. But that has put the centers in some cities in direct competition with retailers also vying for the best space in well–trafficked areas.

In Philadelphia, an architecture bookstore and collection of period neon signs draws pedestrians to the Center for Architecture. AIA Philadelphia Executive Director John Claypool, AIA, estimates that the center’s “Constructing Play” exhibition, a history of construction toys, attracted 10,000 people over a two-month period in 2010. Of course, the center also boasts an enviable location near Reading Terminal Market and across the street from the Philadelphia Convention Center.

According to San Francisco’s O’Driscoll, the Center for Architecture + Design could not afford to rent a storefront. “Instead, we renovated a space in a historic building a half-block from one of the busiest transit hubs in the Bay Area. Our strategy was to create compelling programming and exhibitions. And we discovered that people will take an elevator to the sixth floor of an office building if there is something they want at the end.” She says that about 2,000 people attend the center’s programs each month.

And in New York City, while foot traffic at the Center for Architecture on LaGuardia Place in Greenwich Village doesn’t compare to the mobs on Fifth Avenue, at night the center comes to life. “The real reasons we moved here were the proximity of our members’ offices and the building’s cheap price,” Bell says. “The unintended benefit of being just off Bleecker Street is that at night, the restaurants are lively. Being located in a neighborhood that has a history as an entertainment district is so important.”

Gwen Berlekamp, executive director of the AIA Columbus chapter in Ohio, applauds the board of directors of the Columbus Center for Architecture + Design for its decision to go ahead and open in 2010 despite the onset of a recession. The right location was vital to succeeding, however. “We are located on Broad Street, in part of an old car showroom that was donated to the Columbus College of Art & Design in the Discovery District, which we hope will be Columbus’s next hot neighborhood.”

What worries her are growing pains associated with running a center in a city whose resources can’t match those of a city such as San Francisco or Philadelphia. “There are only two of us on staff,” Berlekamp says, “so we rely on our great volunteers to pull this off.”

Though these centers aren’t branded as part of the AIA, Phila­delphia’s Claypool says, “in the end, if 10,000 people come to the exhibit they know is about kids and creativity, and they know architects are leading that, the AIA is going to be stronger and more deeply embedded into people’s minds here than any other organization.”