Saturday, December 6, 2008

Architecture and Urban Design Matters

For the next year I have the privilege of serving as President of the Los Angeles Chapter of the American Institute of Architects. LA/AIA has over 3,000 members and is one of the largest chapters in the United States. Yet this is not a propitious time to be an architect, what with all the layoffs and the sense amongst almost everybody I encounter that architecture is going nowhere fast.

Architects are frustrated. Just at the moment when cities, decision-makers, branders and the public at large began to take architecture as a subject of serious interest, the rug has been pulled out from under the profession. Thousands are out of work. New projects are not beginning. Prospects seem dim. In a time when trillions of dollars are being spent in the rescue of banks, and billions more will in all likelihood be spent on great public engineering works such as roads, as architects, we and what we work on run the risk of being forgotten - no worse - defined as irrelevant. Architecture must not be dismissed in this time of economic challenge as the luxury you add on after all of society's other ills are addressed.

Each of us who volunteer to be LA/AIA President are asked to think of a theme or organizing principal to guide our year. In a moment of larger challenge such as this, it is easy to forget that architecture and urban design matters. I can think of no better theme when our profession is so discouraged. Both as a practice and as a subject of engagement for our communities and our city we must remind all, now more than ever, that architecture and urban design matters. How does it matter? There are at least four key ways; as an economy that should be supported, as a practice that promotes sustainability, as a means to more efficiently make key decisions regarding the future of our urban environment, and as a practice that helps ensure the competitiveness of our region.

First, we must remind ourselves that we are a significant local industry. There are hundreds of architecture firms large and small in Los Angeles employing tens of thousands of designers. They in turn feed a larger building industry that delivers the housing, places of education and worship, work places and entertainment destinations that house a population that will continue to grow. As a micro-economy, architecture and urban design matters because architects are a key industry within a vital building economy that powers and shelters regional prosperity. The diminishment of our industry portends lesser prospects for the greater good. Supporting the architecture industry in ways subtle as well as direct leads inevitably to increased vitality throughout the region.

A second way architecture and urban design matters is the manner in which it increasingly fosters the sustainability of our daily lives. Indeed, architects now manage the information systems and technologies of sustainability. Architecture and urban design practices are saving energy, reducing dependence on foreign oil, leading to community designs that encourage walking and sociability and reducing our collective exposure to toxic materials and environments. Architecture and urban design matters because it is ever more entwined within the health, safety and welfare of our individual and communal lives.

Third, architecture and urban design matters because through the utilization of the tools of our profession, mainly intelligent visualization, communities agree to move forward with new projects, the libraries and schools and homes and retail centers of our near and distant future. No community in Los Angeles at this point, rich or poor, brown, black, yellow or white is willing to nor should accept a second rate built environment for themselves or their children. Architects visualize future visions better than any other profession. Along with the technology of sustainability, the technology of visualization is a key medium by which consensus is now reached. Architecture and urban design matters because it serves a a critical and artful medium for new agreements and new hope. In the planning for our near and long-term future we have to insist upon this type of visualization, not only because it is good for the economy of the profession, but because it is essential to forging forward with the projects that will define the 21rst Century.

But it is not enough to plan and visualize sustainably sound and beautiful environments. We must make them. There is no doubt in my mind that tremendous funds will be spent in coming years on infrastructure projects. Architects must insist that some of this stimulus be spent on improving not simply the efficiency of our cities and towns, but also the sustainability, quality and beauty of the urban environment as well. In a 21rst Century world all places are created equal, but those that attend to their sustainability and amenity values, that aspect of the city that incorporates delight as well as commodity and firmness, will find themselves more equal than others. For Los Angeles to compete in the coming decades, for our City to be attractive and competitive on a national and world stage, architecture and urban design has to matter. It defines the difference and is the difference maker now more than ever.

Perhaps as architects and designers this is all obvious. But I think we do not spend nearly enough time or energy articulating these ideas , and many other related ideas, to all of our friends and our publics. Each of us in the coming weeks and months should feel comfortable remembering and representing the crucial importance of architecture and urban design matters and not be discouraged by the difficult times and premature thoughts of our professional demise. When Los Angeles emerges from this present moment , and we will emerge, we will be a better city if during this time of challenge architecture and urban design mattered.

Over the next year let each of us renew the beautiful optimism of building that is embedded in our diverse practices. Let us not be afraid in our thoughts and daily lives to speak and practice architecture and urban design matters knowing that it matters now more then ever. Join a committee that interests you, volunteer to serve on a neighborhood council, come together in fellowship within our and allied professions. Speak to the matters and delights of architecture and urban design and know that you are making a positive difference in doing so.

I look forward to working on this theme and evolving a common agenda with all of you that reminds all of us and our publics of the critical and positive role of our profession and our work in the making and remaking of our environment and our city.

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