How does the annual AIA National Conference reflect the focus and mood of the profession?
I’ve been attending AIA conferences for nearly fifteen years, since the 2003 Imagining Architecture event in Sydney. I was a fresh-faced journalist who had recently completed a Masters in Architecture (History and Theory), and I remember feeling giddy in the company of so many great architects. I also felt apprehensive about sitting in a conference hall that was mostly populated by men; I sat up the back, quietly. Luckily, the AIA’s PR and media managers Stella de Vulder and Annette Dearing made me feel welcome and introduced me to many of the speakers and attendees.
I later found out that 2003 was an experiment of sorts: it was the first year the AIA had appointed a Creative Director to oversee the conference. Ian Moore (then at Engelen Moore) drew together a stellar cast of speakers from around the world. When I spoke to Ian at this year’s conference, and told him that 2003 still stood out as a favourite for me, he said that he often hears that feedback from architects.
A friend, also an architect, fondly called 2003 the ‘El Croquis conference’, and for me, that neatly sums it up. With stunning presentations from architects I’d never heard of (I was green, remember) including Rick Joy, Inaki Abalos and Adam Caruso among others, the spectacular images of buildings (houses in the desert: who knew they could be so cool?) and public places (Kalmar Square, anyone?) made me swoon. As a first-timer, it was the perfect combination of an ideal lineup and beautiful presentation: the printed program with its delicate gold font on pale pink paper was an instant collectors item. Looking back, 2003 appears to shimmer like the last vestige of a past era, a simpler time for the profession. I think it's telling that I couldn’t find a digital footprint for that conference online – was 2003 really such a long time ago?
At Imagining Architecture, there was plenty of discussion about beauty and its place in design (to my surprise, ‘beauty’ later disappeared from the lexicon, but it made a belated return at this year’s conference). There were discussions about having to fight with councils or clients to advance good design. But I remember little discussion climate change and the built environment (other conferences dealt with sustainability, and I completed a Churchill Fellowship later that year to research Sustainable and Affordable Housing, so it was on the radar, but not yet mainstream). Also in 2003, the presenters were largely feted as lone genius architects who commanded new buildings out of thin air. How things have changed for the better, since then.
Some other observations from 2003: David Parken was the national president (little did we know then how long his tenure at the Institute would last); and Justine Clark – in her capacity as editor of Architecture Australia magazine – attended the entire conference wearing a baby. I was in awe of Justine – she had my dream job and appeared to sail through new motherhood with aplomb. Her example influenced my choices when I had my first baby five years later: I didn’t take maternity leave but chose to work part-time from home instead, although I took a nine-month career break with my second.
My younger, single self saw Justine gliding through the conference like a swan, but as a mother myself now, I’m pretty sure her legs were paddling furiously beneath the surface. Watching her evolution from editor to researcher to transformer of the profession has been a great delight. In some ways I’m still taking cues from her esteemed example, as are many others now, thanks to her role as co-founder of Parlour, the organisation that began as a collaborative research project to quantify issues around gender equity in architecture, and which now campaigns for a more equitable profession.
In 2003, the idea that architecture academics would join forces with industry partners to undertake ground-breaking research about the nature of practice – to investigate and report on tangible issues that affect architects in their daily lives, rather than getting tangled up in the obscure musings of Deleuze and Heidegger and how they apply to theories of space – was unthinkable.
For me, the image of Justine wearing a baby at the 2003 conference in a crowd of mostly men is a powerful reminder of how far the profession has come in 14 years. It neatly encapsulates one of the main problems plaguing the profession today: the idea that architecture and architects need to change, but how? In 2003, at the conference at least, we sat indoors looking at pretty pictures, while, outside, new procurement and delivery models for buildings, the ever-growing sustainability agenda and the digital revolution all combined to wreak havoc on the profession and its accepted structures. Today, I often hear architects bemoan the lack of value placed on design, and the marginalisation of their expertise within the construction industry, and more broadly.
I think that the 2003 conference is an instructive turning point for the profession, with the benefit of hindsight. Yes, it was a beautiful conference, but the profession has to engage more readily with the outside world, now. Research has to progress those objectives. Before Parlour, most academic research was shrouded in theory and had little applicability to practice, while research within practice wasn't shared more broadly.
There is consensus among architects that the profession has an important role to play in shaping sustainable cities and towns for the future. I believe that architects need to turn outwards even more, and engage more deeply with their communities, and that communications will play a crucial part. I think it's useful to chart the profession's shift in focus and mood through the national conference programs, and so next week I'll delve backwards again, before examining where we stand now after the 2017 event, which was co-incidentally also held in Sydney.
If you'd like to find out more about Parlour, or support the great work they do, you can visit their website, here.
This is Part 4 of the Sounds Like Design 'Comms Toolkit' series, which aims to help architects become better communicators. Sign up to receive weekly updates and more useful tips, or contact us directly to ask about our consulting services.