Motel of the Mysteries, David Macaulay’s send-up of archaeology, takes us to the year 4022. The story opens on the giant rubble heaps of a place called East Usa somewhere in North America. Here, the main character, Howard Carson, stumbles on to a perfectly preserved room of a Holiday Inn. The rest of Macaulay’s book is devoted to a hilarious exploration, with illustrations, of what Carson and a team of archaeologists interpret as the inner sanctum of a temple complex.
Macaulay’s method is satire, but his story makes a serious point: Great civilizations are defined by their architecture. Architecture and made objects are the most durable fabric of how a society lived—its values, its dreams, its aspirations. When a future archaeologist carefully sweeps away the dust and attempts to reconstruct our houses, workplaces, schools, and our sacred and recreational spaces, how will history judge our profession? Will we be seen as leaders who dared to challenge and help shape cultural behavior through design?
Here’s how former AIA public director Dr. Richard Jackson frames the question: “The United States and other civilizations must work not just for the economy, but also for people in communities that are stressed and in need of support. If we are going to make changes, we ought to be creating spaces that work for our health, the economy, and the planet—places that are of the heart.”
Think about it: Jackson, the chair of environmental health services at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, is telling us that design can directly affect public health. That when we create well-designed and more sustainable places to live, work, and play, we don’t just address the issues of poor health, poverty, and disease; we can prevent them from happening. Think about the gains in productivity, efficiency, prosperity, and happiness just from this alone. We have that power if we choose to exercise it, as leaders, wherever the public and our elected leaders engage in conversations about more livable and sustainable communities. There have been a number of recent initiatives, from “The NPR Cities Project” (which reports on trends of urban life today) to Jackson’s own PBS series “Designing Healthy Communities,” both of which were underwritten in part by the AIA. However, the boldest initiative to date may turn out to be an event the AIA was invited to attend last September—the annual meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI). There, the AIA announced a 10-year commitment to develop technology and design for cities that address challenges arising from issues of public health, sustainability, and resiliency to natural disasters.
In the previous story, you just read about how this commitment is playing out in new AIA-supported research at three universities. But there’s a larger story that goes back to the September CGI meeting. First, the AIA was invited as a participant, not an observer. Being recognized as a player in matters of global concern is huge. Just as important, our participation in the CGI is a unique opening where we can forge relationships with global leaders.
Our ability to advance positive change in the world depends on finding and building a community of shared interests. It’s where ideas turn into action. The AIA’s participation in the CGI opens new opportunities for members to tell our story about how design drives positive change. But don’t expect immediate results. The fruits of relationship-building ripen over time. But ripen they will, and to the degree that we search out and seize opportunities as leaders to engage others. As a profession, we have an astonishing potential to shape the story the future tells about us.
Join our conversation at aia.org/repositioning.
Mickey Jacob, FAIA, 2013 President