I had planned to dig deeper in this column into architectural criticism, a topic that I raised in last month’s AIA Perspective. But in light of the recent AIA Convention in Washington, D.C., I want to take a different, if related, tack. The historian David McCullough, our first keynote speaker, got a chuckle from the crowd when he called attention to our nation’s deliberate cultural amnesia. This is how he put it: When we greet one another, we say, “What’s new?” We never ask, “What’s old?” In a musical phrase, this would be a leading tone that sets the chord progression. McCullough lamented our tendency to ignore the lessons of the past, implying that our profession might be susceptible as well. While there is much to know in historical precedent, he was not advocating nostalgia. Instead, he was making a point about how careless we can be about telling our stories.
Let me rephrase that: Too often we let other people tell our stories. When we do the talking, too often we spend more time complaining than anything else: There are not enough students going for their licenses, the academy doesn’t understand the world of practice (and vice versa), clients nickel and dime us to death, and other members of the design and construction team are eating our lunch. And this is where the state of architectural criticism is relevant: How can we expect observers of the scene to be more positive and supportive of the profession when we ourselves are so hard on one another?
Without dismissing the very real challenges facing our profession, let me suggest that it might be time to tell the other side of our story—a point I touched upon last month. Let’s focus on what we have, not what we lack. Call it speaking from the perspective of abundance and not of scarcity. Consider what AIA Convention attendees experienced in the general sessions: An architect who was honored for devoting his life to increasing the opportunities for a more inclusive profession; a professor celebrated for lighting creative fires in the minds of his students; a firm recognized for demonstrating the very best of collaborative work; an AIA Gold Medal recipient who paints with light; projects from all over the country that are making a positive difference in their communities; men and women elevated to AIA fellowship for a lifetime of accomplishment; non-architects awarded honorary membership because of their support for architects and architecture.
Architecture is a profession of incredible abundance. Consider the increasing number of emerging professionals who regard pro bono work not as something one does after hours, but the very core of what it means to be an architect. Yes, the average person may never hire an architect. Yet consider the potential effect of millions of new clients—all of the people hungry for the creativity, empathy, and joy that defines what we do and the spaces we create. We’ve barely scratched the surface. This is the other story we should and must be telling.
McCullough’s keynote appearance at the AIA Convention was bookended by the architects involved in post-9/11 rebuilding and memorializing in New York, Shanksville, Pa., and at the Pentagon, who relayed what the rebuilding experience has meant to them. They certainly conveyed a positive message about our profession’s ability to aid healing in the midst of pain, and to affirm life over death. As we listened, who could not be proud to be an architect? Without stories, memory falters; and without memory, imagination fails. Ours is a story we must tell to inspire those around us and, not least, ourselves.
Join our conversation at aia.org.
Jeff Potter, FAIA, 2012 President