Last month the American Institute of Architects announced yet another reorganization. The Institute, as we in the profession know it, often moves the deck chairs to give the impression of relevance. We get news of these organizational shuffles about every 10 years. This time there appears to be some substance to the moves made at top levels of the organization.

What the AIA calls “repositioning” involves doing what architects need to do to respond to a fundamental change in the way we do business in a post recession environment. Almost every practitioner is acutely aware of this change–clients are paying less for the same services, government is moving away from design-oriented solutions, the public is far less educated about what architects do, and there is little or no discourse about what makes a beautiful and commodious environment in our cities, towns and rural areas. “Sustainability” is a hollow word that has come to obscure rather than illuminate a real crisis. Just when architecture and urban design are most critically needed to help solve fundamental problems in the way we live and work, institutions and the general public have turned away from the design professions. There has been no comparable shift in our standing since the 1920s, when the Modern Movement asserted itself as a revolutionary force.

What has Mickey Jacobs, the current president, done to address this change? Let me first say that Jacobs is unlike most leaders of recent years in facing problems head on, with little reverence for past positions. He has actually shrunk the board of directors, weeding out dead weight and insisting upon results from his leadership team. That impresses me.

Jacobs convened a working group in September, and passed a strong but simple resolution that was immediately sent to all members. Using the internet and a video presentation, he made his points succinctly and with little fanfare. He admitted that a crisis was upon us, and outlined several steps intended to address the most pressing problems we face.

Here are the three points:

(1) Elevate public awareness

(2) Advocate for the profession

(3) Create and expand the sharing of knowledge and expertise to ensure a prosperous future for our members

As the resolution states, “Never before have we needed this level of bold, visionary leadership to inspire architects to work together and build a better world for all people—through architecture.”

That is all obvious enough. How shall we move forward to accomplish these goals? One avenue not explored nearly enough of late is to use the power of information and the Internet to spread the word. Jacobs and his team have committed to provide better dissemination of vital information.

Educating the public about what we do as professionals is also key. The program outlined by the resolution is straightforward, and may succeed. However, if our educational institutions–on both primary and secondary levels–are not part of the initiative, we shall not succeed.

Last, and not least, advocacy at the level of institutions and government is an absolute necessity if architects are to reclaim any kind of authority. AIA lobbying efforts have paled in comparison to those of the legal and medical professions. Washington is controlled by special interest lobbies. Architects should have a strong presence there.

So, Mr. Jacobs has thrown down the gauntlet. We await the results of his first battles, and hope for success.

A Tablet from Heaven?

February 6, 2010

A good deal of ink has been spilled arguing the merits of Apple’s Ipad tablet during the weeks since its launch. Apple’s hype has been almost messianic, with the great Jobs calling the new gadget magical about twenty times in his presentation. I admit to being an Apple devotee, but this put me off a bit. The inflated Iphone will not change your life, and may not even sell very well in a depressed economy. But, should we dismiss this new portable entertainment device without considering its potential?

As the author of four books with another on the way, I have mixed feelings about the emergence of Kindles and other digital book avatars. Amazon has nearly killed the book publishing industry with its punitive discounts. We need traditional books, and will continue to enjoy reading them for the foreseeable future. The Kindle has not yet made a real dent in book sales, and many find its screen cold and impersonal.

The question is, can a tablet with dazzling color rendition become an alternative form of media dissemination in an era when other forms are vanishing? Notwithstanding the spate of cool Iphone Apps that may run on the Ipad, there is a very large untapped market for rich visual media that can be carried in a light, portable device, enriched by text, music, video and other as yet undiscovered means of communication. Apple has been clever in opening the doors to these kinds of innovation in the past. Will it do so with the latest miracle device?

As an architect who writes for a broad audience, and likes to see lots of color in books, I am aware of the economic limitations of color printing in a paper format. What if that drawback were eliminated in tablet publishing? What if other media could be combined with text and photos? Wouldn’t art and architecture publishing benefit profoundly from these new methods of “printing?”

I can’t help but believe that, sooner or later, this generation or next will figure out a way to present the wonders of the visual world with the kind of sharp clarity that we now appreciate digital film and music. What a dazzling show that will be.