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Credit: Barry Falls

No setting seems more appropriate for exploring the ecology of regional design—the theme of the AIA 2011 Convention—than New Orleans, where Hurricane Katrina and the Gulf oil spill have combined to bring climate, energy, and sustainability to the epicenter of the architectural conscience.

The convention’s slate of speakers opens this year with a keynote by Thomas Friedman, three-time Pulitzer Prize winner and The New York Times foreign affairs columnist. Friedman has written extensively about how we live in a new “energy-climate era” that will require clean-technology breakthroughs and infrastructure investments. Regional design approaches are a major ingredient in building the type of green economy critical for sustaining economic growth that Friedman advocates in his latest book, Hot, Flat, and Crowded.

While New Orleans can relate perhaps better than any other city to this year’s theme, AIA Annual Conference Chair Marion Fowlkes, FAIA, LEED AP, principal of Nashville’s Centric Architecture, believes that “regional design and ecology is important in any major city in the United States of any size.”

“Most architects live and work in an urban environment—and how their hub city fits into the greater region means looking at the bigger picture, whether it’s here in Nashville, where I work, or any other town,” Fowlkes says. “Architects have an obligation to participate in the betterment of their own communities, and we want to lead that type of discussion in New Orleans.”

The three-day learning community planned for the convention includes a wide range of sessions addressing how architects help communities work across disciplines and across geographic, cultural, and political divides to coalesce around a sustainable vision of place. The closing keynote session on Saturday will be a panel with New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu in dialogue with other urban mayors, including former Honolulu mayor Jeremy Harris, about how to achieve an implementable vision for the city of the future. While Landrieu is focused on transforming New Orleans, Harris spearheaded 21st Century Oahu, a community-based visioning program where hundreds of public safety, environment, transportation, cultural, and recreation construction projects were completed while empowering neighborhoods to control their own development projects.

Another conference session, “The Master Plan for New Orleans: Livability, Opportunity, and Sustainability in the 21st Century,” will showcase the intensive one-year process that involved 5,000 participants in a new master plan for the city. While many sessions draw on New Orleans, lessons learned will be applicable wherever an architect practices.

Design Salons (called Design Forums in the past) will complement topics introduced in general sessions with programs featuring recognized leaders in sustainable-community building. One Design Salon will be a conversation between Hillary Brown, AIA, LEED AP, principal of New York City’s New Public Works, and Bloomberg News commentator James S. Russell, FAIA.

With more than 130 sessions, 32 preconference workshops, and 37 local tours, the convention will offer sunrise-to-sunset learning opportunities along with the return of the CE Theatre. At the heart of the Hall is L’Avenue, a 700-foot New Orleans—inspired avenue that will be the AIA’s Main Street, with public spaces for interaction and education. The Tulane School of Architecture URBANbuild program, where architecture students design and produce affordable city housing, will recycle materials from L’Avenue.

With so many forward-thinking professionals on the cutting edge of design, leadership, and collaboration soon to descend on New Orleans, the city and its environs are destined to become a learning laboratory for ways to respond to and improve upon the livability, environmental quality, and identity of the regions in which architects practice. aia

For a complete schedule of convention conferences, workshops, and events, visit convention.aia.org.

Written by Mike Singer.