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Can the AIA redefine the American dream?

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RIBA president Paul Hyett considers the challenging task ahead for the new president of the American Institute of Architects, Thompson E Penney

Thompson E Penney: remember that name, for the world may come to owe him dear. Last month he became the 79th president of the American Institute of Architects, with which the RIBA shares so much and with which it occasionally disagrees so intensely.

AIA fellow and partner in a well-established practice, 'Thom' Penney's relaxed confidence epitomises the American dream. But dreams aside, Penney has a big job ahead because, at the dawn of the 21st century, the American dream is under more intense scrutiny and greater threat than ever. Can Penney therefore play an effective role in redefining that dream - reconciling its laudable ambitions with the social and physical needs and constraints of an ever more complex and dangerous world? That is the question that faces those of us who demand so much from America and the AIA.

But what can we really expect from a South Carolina boy - someone whose bountiful world has granted such rich opportunity?

Much, says past AIA president Michael Stanton, the intellectual heavyweight who promoted Penney's presidential candidacy.

Rigorously analytical, Stanton saw a potential which I too believe will reward us all dearly, and which, in view of the extensive involvement of American practices in UK work, will be of particular importance to Britain and the RIBA.

The essence of that potential was revealed in Penney's inaugural address, which I attended. Tradition has it that this event takes place in a building of great architectural significance, and in this context, few venues can match Daniel Burnham's masterful Union Station in Washington. This choice of venue indicated at once both a respect and a sense of duty towards heritage, and a belief in architecture's extraordinary power to combine beauty with utility. Like that other brilliant gateway to Washington - Eero Saarinen's Dulles Airport - Union Station truly lifts the spirit of the traveller.

Taking the stage with a refreshing confidence, Penney's address was as short as it was powerful. Acknowledging the trust now placed in him, he called for an architecture that responds to human need rather than to novelty for its own sake. He emphasised the importance of establishing a firm connection in the public's mind between the ever-growing hunger for value and architecture's capacity for enriching human experience. And he talked of design as both a product and a process that can improve quality of life.

Here are a few choice excerpts from his inaugural address:

'great work of design is not the solitary pursuit of novelty it is creative engagement with human needs you can't do well unless you have empathy unless you can put yourself in someone else's shoes, listening patiently and carefully and humbly to their hopes, their aspirations, their dreams.'

Penney's address continued with the claim that architects must 'care about people, care deeply.You have to believe people matter.'

According to the new president, that means 'caring for the children and the teachers in the classrooms you design; caring for the elderly and sick in our hospitals and nursing homes; caring for the janitors, the plumbers and window washers who maintain the physical fabric.'

Most inspiring of all, I found the suggestion that (architects) 'have an opportunity not only to celebrate the poetry of our work, which elevates the human spirit; we also have an opportunity, and I would say the responsibility, to offer proof about how design enriches human life.'

Concluding with a warning that our work must also be in harmony with the planet rather than destructive of it, he warned that the tools with which the effective performance of architecture can be measured are few and crude. Nevertheless, claimed Penney, the public must gain a more sophisticated understanding of the criteria by which successful architecture can be measured.

Here, then, is a leader who has the vision to see a new potential for architecture in terms of ecologically responsible design; a leader who has a profound sense of duty to the wider community and to future generations; and a leader who has the humility to listen, to learn and to work with, and through, others.

So, at a time when so much of the profession's preoccupations seem to be exclusively with the visual (when was the last time you witnessed a worthy critique of a building's plan, as opposed to another light and selfindulgent commentary on yet another ill-conceived lump, rump or blob? ), it is great to have a new champion for the social agenda for architecture. And, for me, all the more timely as I again tuck into John Allan's brilliant biography on Berthold Lubetkin.

Penney has taken office at a critical time for architecture - a time when we seem to be as much preoccupied with the local as the global challenges that confront us. Those challenges are immensely complex, but Penney is well placed to build on the success of an outstanding series of recent AIA presidents, which include my friend Ron Skaggs of Texas, the shrewd and able Coloradan John Anderson and that hard-working and innovative thinker, Gordon Chong from the West Coast.

Among the international fellowship of architectural institutes with which the RIBA works, few have the potential to impact as significantly on the global sustainability agenda as the AIA. Its absolute commitment in this respect is essential to the survival of humanity.

The Americans have historically built in an extravagant way in terms of land use/transport reconciliation and in their use of nonrenewable energy resources. That is understandable: development planning was based on the belief that the US was a land of boundless resources. What cannot continue, however, is an ongoing failure to address the ecological crisis that enlightened members of their institute, such as the outstanding architectural environmentalist William MacDonough, now publicise with such vigour.

It is my belief that the AIA's trust in their new president represents another significant milestone in the universal quest for a truly sustainable architecture - a quest that requires intense collaboration between us all. To that end the RIBA must surely work ever more closely with our friends in the AIA. As a further step in that process, I hope Thompson E Penney will accept an invitation to address the RIBA Council in a joint session with the London chapter of the AIA during the spring: the agenda will - of course - be sustainable architecture, closer cooperation between us and reciprocal trade.

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