Page C1.2 . 16 May 2012                     
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Interview with AIA CEO Robert Ivy


I think that what Michael Kimmelman is doing right now at the New York Times is particularly effective, because he's looking at this from a more broadly societally based perspective than merely aesthetic.

And I can see, though, the room for both. I can see the room for someone who can cogently comment on why something makes sense in a cultural context, as well as what it looks like and also how it works. And all three of those are critical analyses that are worthwhile and we'll never get all three.

So when I say more, yeah, we always want more. And that's just for us. And that's just one thing that I'm describing. At the same time, we also want that same project known and understood by a broader audience, some of whom can dip in, can dip into ArchitectureWeek or Dezeen and see if they're interested in it.

But that is aimed at a particular cultural bias and community, and I think we lack, yet, a medium that shares the value of architecture with an educated populous. We don't really have the story of architecture down pat, that we can fully share with people who would like to appreciate it, or who do appreciate it and would like to appreciate it more.

We've got an audience of people, I would say, who have architecture in their consciousness. We have preached at them to tell them why it is so important. But they don't really understand why. And that is a hunger that people like Charlie Rose, for instance, have answered in part, but not fully.

I don't know that we have the medium to be able to share that yet, and if you've got one I'd love to know about it. I'd love that vehicle here for the institute. I'd love it for all of us to be able to say why does architecture matter. We say that design matters, and that was a catch phrase here, and it still is.

Why? It isn't merely didactic. We shouldn't be hitting people over the head as if we were going to feed them medicine. Instead, it ought to be a question of attraction. What draws people to which projects. And then let them find out why.

Television... There's been discussion... A number of individuals are out trying to seek support for television that would share this story more effectively with a broader audience. And I would say there are some things in the works right now, but they don't exist yet — outside of HGTV and the more simplistic residential-based sorts of programs, which are valuable for what they are, but that don't really go very far.

Kevin Matthews: This reminds me of the experience I had first teaching introductory design studios at the grass roots. Kids would come into architecture from their high school drafting class... and they thought, seemed to think, that they were going to school to design bigger and better ranch houses. It was a great pleasure to widen their horizons — but they didn't necessarily understand where they were headed. That gulf of understanding "architecture" is so large.

And doesn't it seem like this issue connects with the relatively low percentage of buildings that are designed by architects in this country — lower, I think, than in a lot of other countries in the developed world?

Robert Ivy: I don't focus on that so much. Because my own appreciation is that every building in every major city is designed by an architect. Pardon me very much, if you get in a taxi and drive down any street in any major city, everything that you encounter was designed by an architect.

There are about 105,000 of us only, for the entire USA. And we're just talking about this country. And there are twice that many lawyers in the state of California. Pardon me. And out of that 105,000 architects, a lot of them are in semiretirement.

So you're really talking about a very small community that makes a really enormous effect — for the better, by and large — on the "built environment" — a term that very few people understand. But it does mean more than individual buildings.

It means the aggregation of those buildings into cities and the public places that reside between. It means the reclamation of our waterfronts, which has been an international phenomenon, for which architects have been critical thinkers and protagonists — working with planners and others, granted.

Think of the High Line in New York City and the level of investment that resulted from what is essentially an architectural project. Granted, there were a committed pair of individuals who were not architects, who had this as a cause. And that's a civic passion.

But it took the team of architects who approached this project and pushed it to another level toward execution. Diller Scofidio + Renfro, and James Corner, and others who turned this into something that caught the public imagination.

This knowledge was shared with a broader audience. It caught fire, and today there are billions of dollars in investments as the result of an idea. An idea realized, granted — it's not theory. It is theory put into practice. And the practice resulted in a place. And the place is something that people walk on.

And now people buy airline tickets to New York City, where they experience the city. And the equity has been increased, in the grossest terms — of its tax base and its real estate — much less its tourist attractions or its prestige or the zeitgeist that surrounds this utterly cool place that people want to go to.

So I'm less concerned about the percentage of individuals who are architects because we've always been a relatively small number. But look what we hath wrought. Look at these enormous powers of change that lie in the power of an idea — working with the community in the case of the High Line. And politics and the political will, and good planners like Amanda Burton who brought this to bear.

And there it is. And the result is for anybody to see and appreciate. So, less about the number than it is about the result. And the results are profound, and changing the world for the better every day.

So I remain a booster.

Kevin Matthews: Speaking of change brings to mind Al Gore's rousing presentation to the AIA Convention a few years ago, and his comment that rarely has a profession — in my words — been at the nexus of so much for the species, almost.

Robert Ivy: Number one, I think architects have been engaged with the environment as a larger issue historically. Architects understood — and I'm going back to the proto-architect, prior to the professional definition — and the awareness of the effects of building and climate and the relationship between those two things — that reciprocal relationship of those two things, and what it consisted of.

What is the effect of allowing sunlight into a room? What is the effect of convection? And there are buildings immemorial, and the people that we have called, historically, "architects," where in form and usage, we understood those principles. And whether we called ourselves architects or not, those were the people who made those buildings who ultimately became the professional group that we now know as architects.

Having said that, we are at this critical moment. We have realized our role in this nexus of the crisis of our effect on the environment as a human species. And we have been leaders as a group in trying to sound the alarm that the projects that we make affect the environment more than almost any other elements, including transportation, including energy generation.

And anything that consumes at the level of 40% or greater, and then expels at that reciprocal rate, is also making the largest contribution to the global ecology. We got that.

Other people have not necessarily still gotten that, but we remain adamant and almost to a person — that may be hyperbole, but it's not too far off. I think that the profession understands that, and has really tried to adapt itself and to adopt best practices to reflect that.

Is there more to do? Absolutely! Are we going to get to carbon neutrality? Only fighting and screaming, but we are committed to reaching that goal at some point.

It's going to be extremely difficult to do that in the time frames that have been allotted to us, and we know that even with our most optimistic reference points. But we also know that we can make change, and architects — and in fact this institute — have been leaders in pushing for... Well, in some ways, the USGBC was spawned out of the architects who were members of the Committee on the Environment that was located here.

Together with the founders of that institute, the International Green Construction Code has been promulgated and effected in part by the members of this institute, and other architects who have been involved in codifying that same concern into the built fabric. And the green code hit in April of this year.

So we have been participants in that change. And that's going to be a profound change for all of us, as we make law, and as it is adopted — something that had only relied on sentiment. That's an enormous change. Sentiment will only go so far. And it's a variable thing. But law is a different matter. And we're making changes that will positively affect our impact.

Will we make the 2030 Challenge by 2030? I don't know. As I sit here, what I do know is that a number of architects have signed on to something that we call the 2030 Commitment, which is to try, within the body of their own firms, to reach this goal. And they are making significant changes to do so.

And we've got now over 200 companies who have signed on, including companies that have a significant effect on the built environment. And I mean by that the number of square feet that they draw and conceive and watch become executed. So, we have some leading companies that are engaged in that effort, and have signed on to it, and more are signing on every day. Well, not every day, but they are signing on on a regular basis and write a letter, typically, when they join, to say that "we are going to join this effort." So I think that that is a major thing.

Let me go one step beyond, however, what we have typically called sustainability, which is basically what you're talking about, which is the effect of the built environment on the natural world.

Let me go one beyond that. I think we have another horizon. I think that we're dealing with climate change as best we can, or rather let's call it "building technology and its effects on the natural world." I'm just using a long phrase.

But there are other areas where there is a similar way of thinking — and there is a sort of a sea change right now — that I think is our future, and that is that what we have called "sustainability" is a broader subject than "mere" climate change.

It's a variety of things. Here's one: Health. Architects are engaged with "how do buildings affect the entire human experience?" And one of the areas that I think we as a group are going to focus on, including at this institute, is the effects of the built environment on total health. Public health. What happens when these buildings that are technologically adept are put together. What will they result in? Are they going to result in places that make the human species healthier?

And when I say healthier, I'm talking about well being, about everything from the choice of materials that go into buildings, which we know affects how well we breathe, or even whether we prosper, to the effects of those same things that affect climate and the human species within the built environment toward their well-being.

The effect of sunlight within a room. The most basic element can affect productivity perhaps, or even happiness. Very esoteric terms, but they may have, in their additive form, something to do with our overall sustainability as a species. This is true sustainability.

It's climate. It's well-being. It's safety. It's those things that we've codified as health, safety, welfare. That's a Mona Lisa. You look at the Mona Lisa — you don't see her. Health safety and welfare is the same way.

In this case, I think we're looking at that larger picture that becomes sustainability. Sustainability becomes something larger and I think it becomes well-being, I think it becomes climate, I think it becomes health.

Physical activity. We already see large efforts. Our New York chapter, in fact, has had a program called Fit City, which has been very successful. And it has now morphed into Fit Nation, which has gone international in some ways. And we're going to look at that here the institute. We have some leading proponents of public health, including Dr. Richard Jackson, who was a public member of the board of directors. He's going to have a PBS special that's going to be on this spring, which we helped sponsor.

And we have an initiative called the Americans Design for Health initiative that brought together leading proponents, including Dr. Jackson and others, here in Washington to discuss these questions. You'll hear more from us about these issues.

Kevin Matthews: At the same time, there are a couple of other trends that mesh well with what you're talking about. There's the essential need to live closer together, particularly in the USA, in a more European kind of a footprint.

And as we look at the need to reduce the carbon footprint in all sectors, shifting from the quantitative to the qualitative means that buying our way out of a lack of satisfaction or lack of sunlight — we don't really have that option going forward, to the same degree. So, all of these trends put together seem to suggest an increasing need for what architects can provide, as our ocean liner of American culture starts to turn in a direction where it can keep going, without running into icebergs.

Robert Ivy: Well, yes, but what you described is design that they bring, which is the act of human consciousness, knowledge, and will together — in a synthetic enterprise, where we synthesize questions and find solutions — that's what architects do.

It's more than problem solving because it doesn't require a level of human genius. It takes the power of human synthesis, including the Harvard Business Review, which is sitting on my desk right here. This power of synthesis is the ability to see the large question as a pattern, but a three-dimensional pattern that we put together and synthesize in our own brains.

Even though we have BIM today, that allows us to compress tremendous amounts of knowledge, including discrete data that can be compressed into these three-dimensional vehicles that help our minds in the sense that they store this information for us — nothing that we have yet devised substitutes for human understanding, or this power of creativity and knowledge that synthesize around the architectural project.

That's part of what makes it so much fun to be involved with, and one reason that it fills architects' passions, and always will, I think.

There's a magic moment in there between levels of understanding, knowledge, and issues that are synthesized.

So you bring up the city, an interesting point. The city is a complex representation of that same issue, and how to solve it. And we will.

In China alone, we're going to see 250 million people who move from countryside to city in the next few years. That's almost the population of the United States that are going to move from one environment to another. They're going to move to urban environments. And there is a body of literature that says these are the most sustainable forms of human habitation, for a variety of reasons.

It's an exciting time for us as architects to be engaged in this work, in helping to make not just cities, but just any sort of place that aggregates human activity. The most sustainable environment is not the person living in the remote valley, near a mountainside. It's really living together. And it allows for serendipity and all those other wonderful things that have to do with living in cities. Like this one, Washington, which has brought you here and brings us all into conversation.

Kevin Matthews: It's a lot of fun to be here!

So... that true and lovely picture of the power of design synthesis works when key participants are willing and engaged. And one of the things that's going on in our country — really it's at a lot of levels, but the flagship is Capitol Hill here — is dysfunctional polarization. And I've seen it go all the way down to small communities.

Robert Ivy: Yeah. And I think part of what we do here at the AIA is try to empower our members to become advocates for the built environment. We have 2,500 members — because we count — who are in elected positions in one form or another — whether they're mayors, or chairpersons of planning commissions, or something similar.

Currently we have 2,500. I wish we had 25,000! But we have 2,500 AIA members in elected positions, and we have many, many, many architects who serve on, typically, planning commissions, code bodies, zoning agencies, and so forth. And to good effect. Although we want more.

And we spend a considerable amount of time here in advocacy, which in its simplest form means just speaking up. Most architects, I think, love what they do and want to do the act of design. Then they realize that they need a client, and then we help them to realize what it means to have a practice, that you don't do design as a solo individual. You do it in concert with others.

And ultimately as you mature, you realize you have to have the power of persuasion. And not to promulgate your own ideas, but as much as to ensure that the ideas are aired, and that good solutions emerge.

That's a skill. It can be learned. And the act of advocacy is an important one of our functions. We do that on Capitol Hill. We are apolitical, and you have to be to achieve those goals. We would like to have a member of Congress who is an architect. We haven't had one since Richard Swett in the '90s.

We don't have a single senator who is an architect by training. But we have a lot of people who are interested. We need architects who can speak up and meet the very questions that you raised, who can articulate the issues, and take the heat, and be able to take the position of the community, who can represent different elements within the community, and again, synthesize those points of view. That's a process question — we're trying to do that right, and come out with a solution. So we are big proponents of advocacy and that's one of our chief functions.

Kevin Matthews: Part of what I hear you describing, in a sense advocating for these values, is collaboration. There's collaboration which is essential and natural within project teams, and then there's community design and community-level collaborations. There are a few firms that specialize in that, and then there are many firms that hire consultants to kind of do it for them. I've watched some pretty excellent design firms not engage with their user groups because of the use of facilitation consultants. And so I wonder if there are opportunities for that — there's advocate and collaborate, or advocate to collaborate — and how architects get the tool kit for that

Robert Ivy: Well, they need to learn, and it doesn't come naturally, and the schools of architecture can only go so far. I've taught, and you can only teach so much.

And to have an accreditation visit, believe me — it's like a Rubik's Cube that we're already asking these schools to do, it is already so complex, and we've loaded one more thing and another, so we can only do so much that way. You can only learn so much in school.

The rest you have to learn in practice. You have to get out and try, and you have to have the school of experience, and your firm has to help you do that.

Collaboration is the mode of operation with today's generation of architects. For a younger generation, it comes easier than it did for their mentors. In some cases, they have to mentor their mentors, because their mentors are trying to be the solo practitioner and the goal was to become the Howard Roarks — the great form-giver.

In fact we've just been through a decade of form-giving, pardon me, but where magazines like the one that I was engaged in celebrated this very thing. I mean, it was an extraordinary period of time, so we focused on the things that people were interested in.

And at that point, it was that we can build anything and, therefore, let's look at it. But this new generation does not have that as an ethos. In fact, they disdain it in some ways, when you have conversations with them. And they are naturally given — because of the nature of their own culture — toward working with others to achieve an end.

It will be easier for them to achieve than it was for an earlier generation to do so, where so much relied on the individual and the individual's ability or lack thereof, as that older generation had learned — although they worked with an engineer and a landscape architect, typically, and a couple of other engineers — mechanical, electrical, and so forth — and they had teams.

Today, there is a new model that is much more interactive and much more, let's say, fluid. The architect still has a critical, crucial role in this new fluid group, and that is to foster that group's interactions. And also to broaden it to include all those stakeholders that really need to take part.

That is an exciting change that is already underway. And through new forms of making buildings and projects, integrated project delivery (IPD), we have brain power put toward a methodology that really had not existed before. And that is part of what we do here. We have people who sit around — particularly our volunteer leadership — and when I say sit, they talk to each other and have dialogue about how to describe these new ways of working in an effective way.

And IPD does offer a great deal because what it presupposes is that the dialogue begins from day one, with all the relevant and germane members of the group, right from the get-go, right from the start. I think it offers us a great deal of hope for the future. And it feeds right into the new way of working for a whole new generation. That involves communities, that involves clients, and the people that are doing the work.

Kevin Matthews: Is there anything new that you have on the horizon for the AIA, at the AIA?

Robert Ivy: We're up to our elbows, because I think that this is an inflection point. I think that things are changing in an interesting way. Architecture is being made in a new way — I just described this in IPD — people working in groups. That is a change.

New digital tools have given us the ability to not only produce drawings in a way — when I say drawings I mean models now — in ways that we lacked in the past. But we're also working in a truly global economy, in which our members are regularly in China or the Middle East.

We're in dialogue with a group in Shanghai who have asked to become members of this association, who were trained here and in some cases have returned to China. We have groups in the Middle East — and we're not building an empire at all, we're merely serving the members — members of this association that happen to be in this location.

And they are finding real and meaningful work in those places. They tend to be larger firms, but we also have smaller firms that are engaged in that work as well. And we're seeing it now in a real dialogue between cultures, where work in China is affecting us, and sources of supply from Europe and other places are a part of our daily dialogue.

So whether you're in Iowa or San Francisco or Shanghai or Essen, Germany, you are in some sort of dialogue that is an international conversation. So that's a change.

And at the same time that all of those trends are swirling around, and you mentioned sustainability and health, and we've had, over the last five years certainly, we've had our global challenges in terms of safety — tsunamis and hurricanes and global extremism — and in terms of weather events and changes to the planet that have provoked the best of our members, I would say.

And they have been at the forefront of volunteerism and in bringing positive change to places like Birmingham, Alabama, where we trained something on the order of 400 people in disaster assessment.

We've made relationships with organizations that we have long admired, like Architecture for Humanity and Public Architecture, because there's a new ethos with a new generation that wants to be highly socially engaged. And we're going to do that as a group.

And we are collectively, and I am personally, concerned about a generation of young architects and what they are going to become. They have been challenged economically in a way that was unfair. I personally have been through three recessions and they all hurt. This one hurt in a way obviously that was beyond all of our experience and will they — those who were forced to leave — come back?

We certainly hope so and we want to provide an environment for them that is nurturing and that allows them to engage because we have strong needs. And that really is the bottom line.

The demographics of this country that we talked about, where there are going to be 450 million people, have been put on hold for four years. And yet we still have a need for housing, for education and health care.

All of that has been pent up and all of those needs need to be met. If I have a concern about the economic future, it's that we forget as we rush into doing new work, which we will be doing — whether it's 12 months from now, or 18, we will be replacing the housing that needs to be built in this country — it's that we don't forget the larger... the meta-questions that need to be answered, in our rush to return to prosperity.

And we're on the path. We're beginning to hire again our firms, our billings index is up again for the fifth month in a row. We're calling that a trend. We're putting a stake in the ground. And that's a good thing.

So things have turned. Have they turned permanently? I can't answer that, but I will say that the trend is up.

[Editor's note: The AIA announced on May 16, 2012, that the Architecture Billings Index fell in April.]

My hope is that we don't forget these larger questions, including sustainability, health, human well-being, the future of a younger generation and what they're going to become, and also our whole international dialogue which needs to be fostered and really harvested.

We need to be able to draw from that. Not everyone will be able to do it, or will want to. But for those who can, I think that there is an obligation and actually a desire, on the part of those who do not, to be able to share in the dialogue and to learn as much as we can from it. That's part of what a group like ours can do because it can fosters that sort of engagement. So, we have a lot to do.

Kevin Matthews: Challenges and opportunities.

Robert Ivy: Yeah. All of the above.

Robert A. Ivy, FAIA, is chief executive officer and executive vice president of the American Institute of Architects. Ivy earned an M.Arch. degree from Tulane University, and a B.A. cum laude in English from the University of the South. Prior to joining the AIA, he was editor-in-chief of Architectural Record and vice president and editorial director of McGraw-Hill Construction, where he oversaw 16 print and 17 digital publications. Ivy is the author of Fay Jones: Architect. He is a member of CICA, the International Circle of Architecture Critics, and has served three times as the U.S. Commissioner at the Venice Architecture Biennale. Currently, he also serves on the advisory boards of four schools of architecture: Auburn University's Rural Studio, Tulane University, Mississippi State University, and Tongi University School of Architecture and Urban Planning in Shanghai, China.

Discuss this article in the Architecture Forum...

Kevin Matthews is Editor in Chief of ArchitectureWeek.   More by Kevin Matthews



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