At a meeting of the D.C. Chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), Robert Ivy, the new CEO of the national organization and former editor of Architectural Record, said architects are already expanding their offerings beyond traditional building design to “supplemental services.” Eventually, architects may even become “creative consultants” to a wide range of industries, particularly given the drop-off in building work with the economic downturn. Business schools around the country are now promoting the benefits of “design-thinking” and architects may be uniquely positioned to “intuit, analyze, and solve problems in different ways.” Perhaps much the same can be said for landscape architects and other design professionals though.
The economic landscape has changed in the past few years. Just in 2008, at the height of the economic boom, architects were “cult figures.” It was the “era of the star, with Frank Gehry on billboards and Zaha Hadid on the cover of magazines.” Architecture was seen as “fantastic formalism.” Now, there’s a “different economic landscape. Projects are on hold, and the practice is also shifting.”
Indeed, architectural practice may be shifting in some positive ways. Ivy believes “sustainability is now widely embraced, and has been embedded into our designs. This is now our accepted way of working.” This new sustainable approach to design is crucial because of the dire pressures facing the planet. The global population is expected to grow to 9.4 billion. In the U.S., the population will hit 450 million by 2050. There has been an “assault on nature,” and architects must come up with design solutions to those environmental challenges. With increasingly cataclysmic weather events and earthquakes, “architects and engineers” (but not landscape architects or planners?) are central to “avoiding losses of life.” While designing aesthetic and inspiring buildings is important, perhaps designing safe buildings that can hold up in earthquakes is “more vital considering human life is at stake.”
Ivy sees the rise of cities as a largely positive phenonemon because urban living is how countries will create low-carbon societies. However, he argues all urban residents need to have a good quality of life, which will be a major challenge given two-thirds of the world’s population will live in cities by 2025. He quoted Peter Calthorpe, who said in a recent interview: “urbanism is the foundation for a low carbon future,” and the most cost effective solution to climate change, even more so than renewable energy. In addition, David Owen’s arguments in “Green Metropolis” (see an interview) are used to emphasize the idea that “dense urban living is the most sustainable form of human organization.” Shanghai is cited as an example of the growing trend of the megalopolis, a collection of cities around a central city. While rural areas can be connected to cities via information and communication technologies (ICTs), cities themselves are still very important and the source of “knowledge and human innovation.”
Providing infrastructure for all these growing cities will be a huge area of opportunity for design professionals. India alone is expected to invest more than $300 billion in its infrastructure systems over the next five years. Infrastructure is critical to ensuring urban density works and enables efficiencies.
Another area architects must better focus on: designing for health. “Architecture must go beyond public zones, get into typologies, and areas of need.” Even within the health realm, there is a “palette of needs” that must be addressed. Unfortunately, architects still can’t point to the quantified benefits of more healthy designs, although Ivy said the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) has commissioned major research in this area. “Rationally-based design decisions need proof.” Data is needed to ensure “built environments actually enhance human wellbeing,” and medical facilities become “places for healing.”
In the end, architecture, like the other major design fields, must help accomplish many goals related to mitigating and adapting to climate change, easing social inequalities, and creating healthy human habitats, but also “poetize human experience.” Buildings provide a “frame for human existence and offer different ways of seeing.” Architects, with their unique “spatial knowledge and ability to manipulate or control the physical world,” can either use their powers to “facilitate or mix,” or create “hierarchies that continue to exclude.”
Image credit: San Francisco Federal Building / Morphosis. Image credit: Nic Lehoux