When I was running for AIA President, I said that getting the word out about what architects do and how architecture affects everyone had to be among the AIA’s highest priorities. A conversation earlier this summer with a member of the national staff underscored the challenge we’re up against. Her story also points a way forward. She sang in the chorus that concluded last May’s convention program honoring America’s “Architects of Healing.” In addition to their love of music, the singers, she told me, shared something else: None were or had been trained as architects.
Because their part in the program was at the very end, the singers listened to all the presentations. They heard what the rebuilding of the World Trade Center meant to those playing a part in the healing—the memorial, the museum, the individual buildings, the transportation center, and the overall urban design. Those being honored spoke in personal terms about the creative process that guided their design decisions, and pointed to the larger objective—in the place of darkness and despair, renewed life and hope for a better future.
The narrative that afternoon was not about aesthetic abstractions; those who presented spoke about memory, hope, human needs, compassion, and service. They spoke to the core values of our profession.
As the architects told their stories, the singers snapped pictures with their phones and shared them with friends outside the convention center’s ballroom. While they were texting, they were listening carefully, very carefully, to what was being said. I know this because the staff member I spoke to told me that singer after singer came up to her and said: “I had no idea this is what architects do.” Here was a very small subset of the larger public, and they were moved to a deeper appreciation of the profession.
What I heard confirmed the importance of the Institute’s “repositioning” initiative, launched earlier this year. The goal of this initiative is simply stated but powerful in its implications: to help all of us hear each other better, talk more effectively with one another, and meaningfully engage with the public as well as our collaborators.
The overwhelming response we received from the initial research phase of this project—over 10,000 people took part in last April’s online survey—was a clear indication that AIA members wanted to take a fresh look at how we communicate. How do we make the case for the value of architecture? What makes for effective advocacy in the legislative arena? And what should the Institute look like to help the profession do this?
The task is not to change negative perceptions. Rather, we need to work together to figure out how best to initiate and lead the conversation about the impact and benefits of architecture to clients and society. How we do that describes the next phases of the repositioning project. As this information takes shape, it will be shared for your comments. In the meantime, each of us should seize every opportunity to deliver a message about the importance of architecture, such as the story I heard from the Canadian architect Bing Thom. In a conversation, he spoke about a 9-year-old girl whose parents had brought her to an opening of one of his newest projects. When she walked into the large entry space, she stopped, looked around, and—without prompting, but within earshot of the architect—said, “I want to be an architect.”
When we talk about architecture, when we tell our stories, when we show our work, we have an opportunity to share the passion for the good we do each day in our communities. Whatever the scale, these are wonderful stories. They speak to why we joined the profession. They’re too good to keep to ourselves.
Join our conversation at aia.org/repositioning.
Jeff Potter, FAIA, 2012 President