Wanted: People’s Architects

­The American Institute of Architects challenges its members to improve the built environment for all. Is the profession prepared to respond?

Sixty percent of American kids walked to school in 1973; today that number is down to 13 percent. In 1980, 61 percent of households were composed of a married couple with children; today this group is a minority. A typical suburban house uses three times more BTUs than an urban apartment does. The two largest segments of the U.S. population (baby boomers, at 77 million, and millennials, at about 76 million) are choosing to live in cities, and many of these households are made up of one or two people.

These were just some of the figures that circulated in the lecture rooms at the 2008 American Institute of Architects (AIA) Convention, in May, when more than 20,000 architects landed in Boston. The message behind all the numbers was that our needs have changed dramatically, as have our expectations. Consequently, the built environment requires a massive overhaul, and it could use an infusion of creative ideas. Housing—and all the supportive services that add richness to life, including schools, cultural institutions, parks, stores, and transit—calls for many imaginative proposals for the many different ways we want to live. Dense urban high-rise neighborhoods and tightly planned row houses with access to nature, small single-family houses without water-guzzling lawns—schemes that serve households headed by single men (7 percent), single women (18 percent), and couples who are not married (25 percent)—need to take into consideration the many cultures and ethnicities, and the various ways we build social networks.

“We the People,” the convention’s theme, elicited a lot of talk about finding ways to serve this diverse public. As I listened, I wondered what the world would look like if the design professions were seen by the public as trusted and skilled contributors to healthy, safe, and environmentally sensitive places where everyone could thrive. This, in turn, reminded me of another statistic I heard: by the end of third grade, one out of six kids in the United States has attended at least three schools. Blame this gross instability, one speaker said, on unhealthy and dangerous housing that forces people to move too often for their own good. Could decent housing change these nomadic lives for the better? Why do we even need to ask this question?

Mulling over what I heard, I settled in to listen to a panel of African-American women talk about their struggles and triumphs, mostly in minority architecture practices. I heard them discuss the kinds of work they could get (urban preservation, not a lot of new construction) and identify their mentors (the name Marshall Purnell, AIA president, came up), choosing mentees and writing the history of African-American women for a profession in which women’s history is largely missing. As I surveyed the room, I wondered what happened to the conference’s message of diversity. Here were a couple of white men and several white women in a basically black audience.

Later, I talked about this segregated experience with an enlightened and practical friend, who asked, “You mean all those architects weren’t looking to hire these accomplished women?” Judging by the few who showed up, they were not apparently looking to hire, nor were they looking to learn firsthand about the diversity they heard about in the abstract for three whole days. Which makes me wonder, how do we—the people—convince architects that we need them, and that they need us?

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