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AIA Convention: Architects debate America's yawning inequality

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In between the CPD sessions in Atlanta, a new social challenge was discussed following a headline speech by Bill Clinton, writes Jeremy Melvin

Bill Clinton headlined this year’s AIA convention in Atlanta, and although his advice for the future to address climate change, social inequality and global instability could apply to any profession, it did help to set the tone and draw out the ethos of the event whose theme was ‘impact’.

The AIA, through its philanthropic arm now known as the Architects’ Foundation, has in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy, designated resilience as its prime focus. Amid the commercial exhibition stands and CPD point-hunting delegates, there were several displays and seminar sessions which did just enough to justify the high-minded aims, offering the determined delegate ways of infusing Clinton’s over-arching themes with the microcosm of individual practice.

Of the numerous sessions and seminars two stood out as emblematic of the range of interest and ambition – and how Atlanta itself provides case studies for creating impact. In one, Jack Portman, son of John - who introduced the world, or a segment of its population, to spectacular soaring atria as the centrepiece of giant hotels with the Hyatt Regency and Marriott Marquis in Atlanta - was billed as discussion about the Atlanta skyline as a precedent for other cities. Unfortunately it descended into a litany of ongoing projects, almost all in China, with virtually no discussion of the social and economic forces, or aesthetic intentions behind the imminent echo of Atlanta that each city seemed destined to become.

This was a shame because Portman is clearly a formidable architect – as well as a visionary developer – and while the Hyatt Regency suffers from its operator failing to keep up the planting that was intended to cascade from the access gallery on each of its 22 storeys, the complex curves and volumes of the Marriott Marquis still have the power to thrill. To have some sense of how and why these were created would have been fascinating, but even more so would have been a discussion of the way these spectacles internalise the sorts of activities that tend to happen on streets.

But for the socially-orientated delegates the other stand-out session, ‘What’s happened to equity’, landed Clinton’s prescriptions in the complicated context of Atlanta, the city with the highest – ie the most unequal – Gini Coefficient figure in the US. Within a few blocks of Portman’s sumptuous atria are some of the country’s most impoverished urban districts, and Atlanta did not even need a natural disaster to get them. More than half its schoolchildren do not graduate from high school, and African Americans account for 56 per cent if its population, though they make up only eight per cent of the students at Georgia Tech, rated as the 49th best university in the world in a recent league table.

Georgia Tech professor and former commissioner of planning and community development for Atlanta Michael Dobbins, together with his regional planning colleague Nisha Botchwey, not-for-profit housing developer Bruce Gunter, and William Gilchrist, director of place-based development for New Orleans, outlined various strategies that architects and urbanists can use to address equity with the same degree of attention paid to economic growth and environmental design. Discover unconventional ways to allow members of the community to engage with the future of their neighbour – after Bible study meetings, Botchwey suggested – while improving public transport gives the opportunity to consolidate local amenities around transport hubs and could eventually eliminate the need for car ownership, relieving low income households of a $9,000 annual imposition. Many of their concerns, such as the silos of central government policy and funding not relating to needs on the ground, and the need to create alternative platforms for involving professionals, private and public sector and community representatives, had a familiar ring.

As a conclusion Dobbins outlined at embryonic scheme for measuring equity on the model of the LEED environmental index. A crude metric, one architect confided, as it’s easy to clock up LEED points with features like bike racks, whether or not they are used, but a metric nonetheless which could form the basis for architects to deal with one of Clinton’s three big concerns.

For an architect looking to boost his salary beyond the male peak median of $120,000 - or hers beyond $110,000, more or less the peak female media – intent on CPD points and fixated on a notion of architecture as a selection from the ‘Aladdin’s cave of manufactured goods’ as new honorary AIA Fellow Jo Noero described the exhibition of building products, these sessions were easy to miss.

A few delegates furtively agreed that the lack of attention to design mirrored an absence of criticism from both inside and outside the profession, and indeed critical faculties that might have helped to explain how design talent might create impact in poor neighbourhoods. More or less the only session where design was the focus was Noero and another new honorary fellow, Pedro Gubbins Foxley from Chile. Noero’s approach to architecture, guided by ethics forged in the crucible of Apartheid and Post Apartheid South Africa, includes designing no private houses larger than 150 sqm, and no [architectural] labour for purely profit-orientated motives, and results in local materials and labour creating robust buildings of paradoxically delicate beauty.

Gubbins Foxley’s work was new to me, but the few projects he had time to show responded with uncommon sensibility to complicated urban and ravishingly beautiful rural settings: re-orientating a football stadium in a small city to fit better in its plan form, and then sinking it so it doesn’t tower over the four storey building line, for instance. But it was his and Noero’s ability to conjure form from almost nothing, to manipulate light, balance colour with texture and shade, which had the potential to take architectural imaginations from Clinton’s urgencies to imaginative delight.

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