(Re)Building Culture at AIA’s 2021 Conference on Architecture

August 3, 2021 Ι Architect Magazine 

After the social, emotional, political, and economic fissures of a year-plus of pandemic, AIA’s 2021 Conference on Architecture is happening in the same place as last year—namely, on your computer. In these fractious times, the virtual conference has a special focus on how to weave continuity and perseverance through a period of unprecedented disruption. It showcases sessions on how to leverage the imperatives of racial and socioeconomic justice—which engulfed our cities with what was likely the largest protest movement in U.S. history last summer—into management strategies that meet moral responsibilities and practice obligations. There’s an exhortation to take a client’s-eye view of sustainability and to examine how the rest of the world sees architects, with disciplinary critiques grounded in the gap between architects’ rhetoric and actions, made ever more apparent as climate change and austerity accelerates racial and socioeconomic inequality.

In architecture professor Bradford Grant’s “Architecture, Climate Change, and Society” session, adapted from a Howard University course that he teaches, he urges a merger of architecture with public policy activism, a critique of the profession that begins by recognizing that architects’ ability to effect change is often less than they imagine it to be. Quite simply: “Architects are reluctant to take the lead in societal issues and problems,” says Grant, and they—and more importantly, the rest of society—suffer because of it.

Architects want to create nurturing, equitable, sustainable communities that imbue material security and a sense of communal solidarity, and that ennoble reaffirmations of people’s humanity. But achieving these things requires political will to deliver, and if the developer or client doesn’t put them in the brief as explicitly as possible, the building is not going to be constructed that way. What is built, then, is more likely to reinforce existing inequalities and deficiencies, which is why they coninute to be so blatantly omnipresent in the built environment. Architects, in Grant’s critique, more often align themselves behind existing policy priorities, for good or ill.

“The historic precedents that I can think of are usually negative examples,” he says. Trump’s promised border wall is one. “And the architects get excited. That’s a big commission! We were salivating on that,” he says. Rather quickly, architects pivoted from the punitive and reactionary border wall to advocacy for a Green New Deal, a far bigger commission with a diametrically opposed ethical stance and an infinitely broader moral horizon that could address some of the problems architects are engaged in. But this rapid pivot is further evidence that there’s little coherent vision of how architects should wield policy levers to fulfill their own rhetoric.

But there can be. “We need to get to the forefront. We need to be in the leadership positions beyond just following the developers and the business interests,” says Grant. “We’re moving in the right direction, but we’re at the caboose. This is the position we typically find ourselves in.”

Architects have been called out before, and the crises of the day demand another polarizing “Whitney Young Moment,” if one had not already occurred.

Just as in 1968, architects have the skills to be savvy policy advocates, says Grant. This includes the ability to apply nonlinear design thinking to policy problems and an aptitude for visual communication, especially relevant in today’s internet-steeped visual culture.

Diversifying the profession in order to reach better policy consensus is a (relatively) easy first step down this path. The more difficult task will be to integrate progressive, activist values and a proficiency with public policy into the “whole process of becoming an architect,” Grant says. Of course, “leadership training, policy making, [and] inclusive pedagogy should happen in the reductional sector, but it should happen in internships, in the firms, it should happen within the accreditation process, it should happen in the architectural examinations. You can become a licensed architect by taking the exams and not really deal with any of the issues I’m talking about,” he says. The premise of these exams is to protect the health, safety, and welfare of the public, but they are silent when it comes to public health threats of racism and inequality, all encoded in the built environment.

Even outside of any ethical or moral responsibility to design a more equitable, just, and liberated world for those that need it most, says Grant, there is the disciplinary necessity of setting your own brief and taking ownership of policy, instead of receding as a nearly superfluous add-on serving to aestheticize whatever the great powers of the economy want to do. “If we stay in that status quo, we’ll eventually die,” Grant says.

But first, firms are beginning to understand that “diversity and activist advocacy might be a way [to] grow and gain prominence,” he says.

For Cynthia Shonaiya, AIA, a principal at Hord Coplan Macht (HCM), embracing diversity and progressive practice management is a way to ensure new talent flows in, helping to secure a stable future for firms when leadership transitions occur.

Located somewhere between artists and engineers, with a history of venerating the ideal of a lone genius over collective achievement, architects are often reluctant to consider the legacies of the businesses they found and establish once they have retired or passed on. But “transition is something that’s inevitable,” says Shonaiya, a panelist on the convention session, “Transitioning Your Firm for What’s Next (And Who’s Next).”

“Diversification is a way of attracting and keeping new talent,” she says. “It’s an opportunity to get a deeper, wider talent pool” and “to identify who might be those future leaders.”

Planning for leadership transitions, and leadership development, is a way to steer the ship of firm culture in a direction that attracts the best and brightest minds. At HCM, Shonaiya says, young designers are leading cultural change. Recent grads consistently demand an office culture that’s more collaborative, less hierarchical, and more mindful of work-life balance. Meeting them where they’re at with clearly defined succession processes that reflect their values is a way to “broaden the reach and depth of the firm,” she says.

“In some ways, we have separated the idea of ownership of the firm from leadership,” says Shonaiya. The ownership pool is made up of dozens of people, spread over the firm’s four offices. Employees don’t have to be a principal to be an owner. “It’s made the transition smoother because ownership does not reside in one person or the three named people on the masthead,” she says.

That kind of smooth transition requires soul-searching. One critical place to start is by asking: “What is the essence of this firm?” says Shonaiya. “Is it me as an individual, or is it our work? And if it’s the work that we do, is there a way to cultivate the design thinking—that essence—so that it goes beyond the individual and permeates though the firm?” HCM is on its second or third generation of leaders. “But we’re still the same firm because we were able to identify the essence of what we do.”

The sooner a firm can do this, the better. The breadth and effectiveness of transition plans is directly proportional to how much time is spent developing them. “What you’re able to achieve will depend on how much time you have for this transition,” says Shonaiya.

In architecture, transitions and ruptures are hardly limited to leadership changes. As the concept of “resilience” has dominated architectural discourse over the last decade or so, much of the analysis of the built environment has pivoted to a study of how to manage sudden and dramatic change, wholly necessary but perhaps never quite sufficient to compensate for an era of cataclysmic climate change. Marc Chavez, Deltek’s director of MasterSpec, has seen the concept of resilience undergoing a Cambrian explosion of sorts; a rapid expansion and diversification of meaning.

“It used to be that resiliency was being able to bounce back from problems,” he says. Today, “our definitions have expanded, our synonyms for it have grown.” This broader definition includes adaptability, flexibility, and preparation for disasters, but also issues of practice management, like staff diversity and engagement with communities.

Chavez’s session “Why a Resilient Business Strategy Matters” is all about grafting the design values that help a building withstand shocks and rapid change and applying them to how architecture firms are managed and operated. There’s a business case for all of it: More sustainable and disaster-resilient buildings can draw higher rents and stay functional when others cannot. Deeper engagement with stakeholders creates return customers, and diverse teams bring more perspectives to the table and bring about better decisions.

Chavez has an architectural metaphor of choice for the value of diversity. Plywood veneer grains oriented in one direction crumple when confronted with parallel force. But layered veneers set on top of each other with perpendicular grains (representing diverse and opposing viewpoints), as with mass timber systems, “can deal with stress from different directions,” he says, and disruption from any front. “So you want as many different directions as you can get.”

For these discussions, “it behooves all of us to get a little uncomfortable,” he says, to break up “in-group bias” that corrodes resilience by coalescing decision-making around ossified structures and ideas.

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