Looking Back, Moving Forward: What the 2012 National Convention says about Architecture Today

© Megan Jett

According to its Web Site, The American Institute of Architects (AIA) aims to be two things for the architecture profession: a resource and a voice.

There’s no doubt that as a resource, the AIA plays its part well. But what does it mean to be a “voice”? Can an association speak for a profession? And, if so, what is it saying?

Today, over 17,000 architects and designers, contractors and project managers, magazines and bloggers (including us) will converge on the Capital for the AIA’s 144th National Convention, Design Connects. Over the course of three days, connections will be made, conversations had, and three keynote speakers present.

If the AIA represents how we conceptualize and communicate architecture, then let’s take a closer look at those speakers who will be its living mouthpieces: a famed historian, a member of the Obama administration, and the architects who participated in the 9/11 Memorials. The past, the present, the future. Taken together, they tell a story – of where we’ve been, yes, but, more importantly, where we’re going.

The Past

Pullitzer Prize Winning Historian, David McCullough. Photo © Jacquelyn Martin/The Associated Press

The former Librarian of Congress, Daniel Boorstin, once said: “trying to plan for the future without a sense of the past is like trying to plant cut flowers.” [1]

Today, the first day of the conference, Pullitzer-Prize winning historian David McCullough will attempt to impart that all-important “sense of the past” and explain how architecture has been intertwined with democracy since our nation’s inception.

But McCullough offers us more than a history lesson – he offers a way of conceptualizing our past within its human context. McCullogh is a master of his craft for his ability to present the past as a displaced present, to connect us to historical figures as once living and breathing human beings, subject to the same fears and uncertainties we face today.

In his 2003 Thomas Jefferson Lecture, McCullough says that writing history ”calls for mind and heart. Empathy is essential.” The same exact thing could be said of architecture. Beyond aesthetics, we must consider architecture with empathy for the user experience, the humanity in the building, its connectedness to the living world around it. Only using empathy as our guiding principle, can we truly learn from our past and begin to correct our mistakes.

The Present

US Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Shaun Donovan. Photo © Kristine Larsen

“What I see starting to happen around the country are opportunities for architecture and architects to step back into a dialogue with communities, particularly at a time when the housing crisis has decimated neighborhoods. There’s an enormous opportunity to bring design, in the best sense, to low-income communities, to make sure that everyone benefits from it. And I sense it when I go to architecture schools, when I talk to architects—there’s a reengagement.” [2]

The change, the reengagement, the empathy, that Shaun Donovan sees happening everywhere in architecture is no more evident than in the arc of his very career.

Donovan has forged a career around a central issue: bringing design to bear in affordable housing. After receiving M.A.s in Architecture and Public Administration from Harvard in 1995 and working in the public and private sectors to build/preserve hundreds of thousands of affordable homes, he is now the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

His tenure has displayed a radical departure for HUD, because Donavan is not just building houses, but sustainable communities. And he’s brought in reinforcements. For the first time, HUD is in constant conversation with both the Department of Transportation (DOT) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) because, for the first time, they are all working towards remarkably similar goals. [3]

Donavan’s is not the career of a typical architect, no, but his desire to apply his knowledge of architecture to enact positive change in this world – that’s more and more common everyday.

Via Verde, a site of affordable housing in the South Bronx that represents a new era in architecture. According to Shaun Donavan, "In terms of the design, unlike much of the public housing design of half a century ago, it’s responsive to its site, it's responsive to the environment, it mixes incomes, and it incorporates community programming, such as farmers’ markets and rooftop gardens. It responds to the community in so many different ways. It’s emblematic of the way architecture and architects can reengage."

For decades, but especially now in the midst of this job-scarce economy, architects have begun to break away from the modernist principles that have circumscribed traditional architectural thinking – what Donavan describes as the Corbusian, tabula rasa model.

Donavan represents how the priorities have changed: today, we engage the community as a vital source of inspiration and guidance; we enter into conversation with other disciplines; we consider environmental impact. We’ve begun to de-hierarchize what is “architecture” and expand its definition. We’ve begun to let empathy creep into the profession. Like good historians, we’re delving into architecture’s very human context.

The Future

The Lincoln Memorial. CC Flickr User anjan58. Used under Creative Commons

On the last day of the Convention, the final presentation will be a ceremony, “Architects of Healing,” honoring those involved in the 9/11 Memorials. You may be wondering, then, why this section is named “The Future,” when, ostensibly, it is all about the past.

Yet, these Memorials, while of course dedicated to honoring and remembering those we’ve lost, are really about how we make sense of that loss, how we can move on.

Consider for a moment, the Lincoln Memorial: its grandeur and scale, its impressive pillars and rising stairs. Lincoln, larger than life, sits presiding over the passersby, duly impressed by his magnanimousness.

Now consider the 9/11 Memorial Plaza in New York City. Located at street level, the plaza is filled with a grove of trees. As you approach the Museum, its surface reflecting the colors and forms surrounding it, its horizontal form leads you to the center of the site. There, sit two dark, reflective pools, the footprints where the Twin Towers once stood. [4]

VIsualization of the 9/11 Memorial Plaza by Squared Design Lab. http://www.911memorial.org/

The 9/11 Memorial marks a moment in our history, but it also speaks eloquently about our present and how we conceive of architecture today. It is carefully landscaped with an emphasis on sustainable design, it is accessible and built to human scale, it is integrated into its living context.

Here, we connect to the human beings of the past, but then emerge through the trees and back into the city, where we connect to the human beings of our present. Because only with an empathetic understanding of where we’ve been, can we keep walking towards our future.


[1] McCullough, David. “The Course of Human Events.” 2003 Jefferson Lecturer. National Endowment for the Humanities.

[2] Rousseau, Bryant. “HUD Secretary Shaun Donavan Interview.” ArchRecord. June 30, 2010.

[3] Hanscom, Greg. “President Obama and the Forgotten Urban Agenda.” Grist. January 17, 2012. .

[4] Henry , Christopher. “Video: Craig Dyker talks about 9/11 Memorial Museum Pavilion” ArchDaily. July 19, 2011.

About this author
Cite: Vanessa Quirk. "Looking Back, Moving Forward: What the 2012 National Convention says about Architecture Today" 17 May 2012. ArchDaily. Accessed . <https://www.archdaily.com/234712/looking-back-moving-forward-what-the-2012-national-convention-says-about-architecture-today> ISSN 0719-8884

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