Monday, May 16, 2016

Philadelphia, Dreyfus, Oxman, Koolhaas and the AIA

Philadelphia, more than twice Baltimore's size, keeps getting the bigger conventions and gatherings in its downtown Convention Center atop the Reading Market, an adaptive re-use of the old Reading Terminal Station. Of course, the real convention center is in adjacent structures, nevertheless, the historic station provides character that Baltimore's center sorely lacks.

This year's trophy is, of course, the  Convention of the Democratic Party. Less spectacularly, urban planners, developers and architects flock twice to Philly in 2016 as well. In April it was the spring gathering of the Urban Land Institute that attracted professionals to the city of brotherly love, this week it will be the AIA Convention, a massive three plus day affair of the kind Baltimore would love to attract. (The Republican Convention, of course will be in Cleveland. Cleveland!). 

At the annual gathering of architects from across the country keynote addresses will be held daily in a gigantic ballroom with two video screens and annually increasing pomp and circumstance, lately with speakers from outside the profession. These speakers are to get the conventioneers out of bed early and supposedly have some relation to design, cities or innovation. Then the thousands of working and educational sessions follow.  This year I will be a presenter in two sessions, one about smart cities and one about how small firms can get involved in their communities.
Philadelphia skyline

This year's first keynote attraction is Julia Dreyfus. She will be interviewed by Terry Gross of NPR's Fresh Air. Of course, Dreyfus is an actor and no architect. But, as the AIA website proclaims:
Julia is a social activist who is passionate about climate change, water conservation, children’s education, and the power of design. Important topics that we connect with, too. (AIA website)

On day 2, Neri Oxman of MIT will speak, she is, indeed, an architect and really very interesting. I attended a presentation she gave to the Green Building Council conference in Toronto about bio-mimicry, building design that responds to changing external conditions similar to living things and was very impressed about her work and engaging presentation.
At the MIT Media Lab, Oxman directs the Mediated Matter research group. Through projects such as the bio-crafted Silk Pavilion—where 6,500 silkworms wove a cocoon over digitally placed threads—the group radically rethinks everyday designs and systems and explores the relationship between nature and the built environment.
Finally, on Saturday Rem Koolhaas will address the convention, clearly scheduled to prevent conventioneers from going home early when he will be on stage with the Dean of the Harvard Graduate School for Design.
Rethinking, reimagining, revising your plans for the world’s future—it’s all on the agenda on Day 3 in Philly, beginning with a kick in the pants from Koolhaas, the Pritzker Prize winner. Joining Koolhaas is Mohsen Mostafavi, architect, educator, and Dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Design.
I wrote a somewhat critical blog article about the big production of the annual AIA convention and have drawn some flak for it.  However one sees that, the convention is great for continued education and for a re-charge on the bigger questions of design, environment and what architecture is all about.
MICA graduate Demi Lashawn about AIA: Old white men

A graduate student at MICA's new School of Social design did his thesis work on AIA and presented last week his very critical conclusion in which he particularly stressed that AIA has a very poor representation of minority architects. (Only one tenth of the representation of African Americans in the general population). He made it sound as if the oldest American Professional organization was still an elitist "old boys club" that hadn't changed since 1857 when it was founded.

That isn't entirely fair, even though minority participation is truly poor. But as I can see in AIA Baltimore which as a very active membership, is socially engaged, and collaborates across various organizations involved with design and construction, there is progress. Of course, Baltimore's only architecture school (until MICA started a program) is a historically black university (HBCU). AIA Baltimore board has as one of its current board members Kathleen Sherrill, firm owner and professor at Morgan who recently told an audience at a Freddie Gray remembrance day that she is one of only 387 licensed female black architects. Baltimore AIA also has an active committee called Women in Architecture.

The gender discrepancy among architects seems to abide, though. Half of those enrolling in architecture schools are women women. But only 20% are registered architects. One could suspect that Dreyfus isn't invited to speak at the convention to balance male preponderance. But if anyone thought of her as eye candy for the "good old boys", she may just surprise them with her talk.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

AIA Convention website
Smart Digital Eco-Cities in the 21st Century: Resilient, Sustainable, Livable session
Influencing Decision Making in Local Communities session