Service to the Profession

AIA National

 

94th President 2018

First Vice President 2017

Candidate and President Elect 2016

 

Why Me?

At the first AIA Board of Directors meeting I attended as the freshly-minted Middle Atlantic Regional Director, I sat on the edge of my chair taking in every word of the most compelling discourse on the architectural profession I had ever witnessed. Michael Beirut, of Pentagram, and Arthur Cohen, of LaPlaca Cohen, reported their findings from an exhaustive, year-long, study of the architectural profession. They spoke inspiring words about the skyrocketing opportunities for a profession committed to making the world a better place and chilling warnings about the rapid pace of disruption coming to a profession that has existed for thousands of years.

Much of the next two years was devoted to reinventing AIA’s governance structure to prepare AIA for the sweeping changes the architectural profession faces. (Our profession owes much to Mickey Jacob, FAIA, 89th President of AIA, and Helene Combs Dreiling, FAIA, 90th President, for setting aside everything to “reposition” AIA.) As the governance metamorphosis came to fruition, I believed it was critical that AIA get back to the challenges articulated by Beirut and Cohen. Who remembered? Who understood the urgency? Who was prepared to lead AIA in this imperative existential reassessment? I surveyed the Board Room only to realize I had a duty to the profession I love. It was up to me.

Becoming a candidate for national office was unlike anything I had ever undertaken. It was wwwaaayyy outside my comfort zone. However, I found the process extremely invigorating. Over the next six months I spoke with hundreds of AIA members across the country. Those conversations made me fall even more deeply in love with the profession and in awe of architects. Almost to a person, architects are devoted to making the world a better place. They are highly skilled and educated, disciplined and energetic, hopeful and inspiring, empathetic and caring. Earning a chance to lead AIA evolved well beyond exercising a sense of duty to full-throated advocacy for the value of the architectural profession.

On May 26, 2016, I was elected 94th President of the American Institute of Architects, greatly relieved and more excited than I can express. I would serve as AIA President in 2018 and lead the Institute at its national conference in New York City, the first in thirty years. Although it was another half year before officially taking office as First Vice President, once elected, AIA duties and traveling began in earnest.

Presidential Privilege

The role of AIA President is multi-dimensional and very, very, demanding. In 2018, AIA reached an historic high with over 93,000 members. There are well over two hundred local and state chapters (components) located across the country. AIA maintains purposeful partnerships with dozens of organizations in the design professions, the construction industry, and beyond. AIA has a significant presence internationally, with AIA chapters around the globe, and, with multi-lateral and bi-lateral engagements with architectural associations worldwide.

The President-elect, First Vice President, and President travel extensively, maintaining industry and international relationships, participating in local, state, and regional AIA conferences, leading AIA national events, and representing AIA to the world. It was exhilarating. Just as I learned to love architecture more deeply as a candidate, I developed an even stronger sense of optimism representing AIA. It was truly a life-changing experience.

While president-elect, I traveled to China as part of a delegation organized by Ed Mazria, FAIA, founder of Architecture 2030, a few weeks after Presidents Barrack Obama and Xi Jinping signed the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. Our goal was to align climate change response in the architectural profession. I saw firsthand how vastly different cultures can share concerns and work energetically together to achieve common goals.

Later that year, I joined the AIA delegation at the quadrennial General Assembly of the Federation of Pan-American Architectural Associations (FPAA). Asuncion, Paraguay, is the first city I have visited with a sprawling “favela”, where thousands live without electricity, running water, sewers, schools, hospitals, and even police and fire stations. It is hard for we Americans to imagine living in conditions like those in Asuncion and thousands of similar places around the globe. According to UN figures, over 60% of African, 30% of Asian, and 24% of Latin American urban populations live in such “informal settlements”, a rather antiseptic term for disheartening slum conditions.

There is great honor and privilege in traveling as AIA President. In Singapore, Yew Kee Cheong, AIA, most graciously devoted three days ushering Adriana and me around, including a day with Larry Lye Hock Ng, Group Director of Architecture & Urban Design Excellence (love the title!) from the Singapore Urban Redevelopment Authority. Singapore’s belief in and commitment of resources to research, planning and design is like nothing I’ve seen elsewhere. With childish naivete, our culture puts its faith in real estate markets with little or no investment in coordination or visioning – planning. Results speak for themselves.

Talk about presidential privilege! AIA co-sponsors the American Pavilion at the Venice Architectural Biennale. It was my good fortune to serve as President during a biennale year. The theme, Dimensions of Citizenship, included several deeply moving works, like Mexus by Estudio Teddy Cruz + Fonna Forman and In Plain Sight by Diller Scofidio + Renfro. Cruz and Forman showed how the Rio Grande functions as a unifier, not a barrier, and how destructive a border wall would be ecologically and socially. By comparing daylight and nighttime satellite images, DSR’s fantastically simple yet powerful video demonstrated how little social equity has figured into infrastructure development worldwide. The 2018 American Pavilion exhibit was curated by the University of Chicago and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

But the greatest privilege of holding an office like the AIA Presidency is its symbolic power which I tried to wield thoughtfully. On the closing day of the AIA Conference on Architecture in New York, I scratched the President’s usual schedule of ceremonial appearances to instead attend a meeting of the Coalition of Community College Architecture Programs (CCCAP). There are over 120 community college architecture programs across the country. These high-quality programs are affordable and accessible to students generally left out of the five-, six-, and seven-year accredited architecture programs. With all the talk about the profession’s dismal lack of diversity and inclusion, community colleges are educating hundreds of minority students. Very few accredited architecture schools, including my beloved University of Maryland, have formalized “articulation agreements” that pave a pathway from community colleges into accredited degree programs. The presence of the AIA President meant a great deal the members of CCCAP. I never felt more privileged to be AIA President than that morning in New York.

Architects Are Hope

Architects serve clients. Most of the time, our clients are investing more money than they can fathom to create facilities for aspirational needs. The costs are all too real. The benefits require a leap of faith, imagining future success at a magnitude that justifies titanic risks. It takes confidence and resolve. So, it should be of no surprise that architects struggle to interject considerations like the enrichment of culture, betterment of society, and rescuing the world from threats like climate change. When you think about the inertia architects contend with every day, it is a testament to our tremendous commitment and tenacity that building design and urban conditions advance as rapidly as they do. (Remember, sustainability was a radical new term 30 years ago.)

The best perspective I’ve heard on what makes architects different – and of such great value to society – comes from Roy Spence. Roy is co-founder of GSD&M, one of the nation’s preeminent marketing and public relations firms. AIA has had the privilege of working with Roy’s offshoot enterprise, the Purpose Institute, created to advise not-for-profit entities like AIA. Roy starts every workshop with a twenty-minute warm-up. Each is pure performance art. Roy never fails to mention two things which he believes set architects apart and defines our value in the context of today’s daunting challenges. “Architects build shit! You don’t just shuffle paper from one pile to the next. Your work is concrete and lasting.” Our work impacts the world materially and creates a legacy for future generations. Roy sees a seriousness of mind and purpose without which architects would be incapable of creating works of such great consequence. “Architects believe in their ability to make the world a better place. Architects work to accomplish this every day. Architects are hope. Look around the world. Do you think the world could use more hope today?” Thank you, Roy, for helping architects remember who we are and what we must contribute.

Architecture’s Relevance Revolution

That 2012 Board meeting with Michael Beirut and Arthur Cohen coalesced many things I had observed over decades practicing architecture. It connected the dots. Just as circumstances last century demanded that architects create the modern era, the realities of the 21st century make entirely new and vastly different demands on the profession today. Problems confronting humanity have evolved; architecture and urban systems must evolve with them.

With the exposure I gained as AIA President, I can say with authority that few, very few, architects are aware of the robust international discourse that is rapidly redefining – and hugely expanding – the relevance of architecture. Thanks to President Trump for raising awareness about the Paris Agreement. The willful ignorance of the current administration has highlighted the urgency of climate change far beyond anything I did writing columns in Architect Magazine. Unfortunately, nothing similar has happened to alert architects to the UN Habitat III Summit and the New Urban Agenda that was adopted in Quito by some 195 nations including the US. These two international agreements set the architectural profession on its 21st century course.

Architecture exists in tension between its humanistic and tectonic dimensions. This has always been true, although the pendulum swings from era to era. At times, shifting cultural, social, economic, and environmental conditions compel architects to fundamentally reconstitute human circumstances. Other times, evolving means and methods, expanding demand, and even the pure joy of making, draw architects to reinvent the “how” of building. Today, both forces are pulling at architecture with extraordinary power.

 

Hurtling at breakneck speed through an unprecedented technological revolution, it is easy to become engulfed in architecture’s tectonic possibilities. We live in the age of iPhones and Apps, and practice in the age of BIM and VR.

Architects are deeply fascinated by the limitless opportunities of technology. But fascination with the new and now must not blind us to the most important, most urgent, tectonic demand on architecture: arresting climate change. Through the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, our generation of architects has received a mandate to create carbon-free buildings, to retool EVERYTHING about the way we design, construct, occupy, operate, maintain, and renew buildings.

The tectonics of architecture are not an end, but a means. Architecture serves human purposes. Today, those purposes are driving forward into uncharted territory just a rapidly as the technological revolution.

The astounding size of global population, and the effects of our numbers, are the accelerants propelling today’s humanistic dimensions of architecture. Scientists have termed this the “anthropocene” era, meaning human impacts define earth’s current geological era. In addition, today the majority of people live in cities; by century’s end nearly nine in ten will. For earth, it is the anthropocene; for people, the urban era.

Factors defining current human conditions were codified at the Habitat III Summit into principles for global cooperation, titled the New Urban Agenda, and supported by seventeen Sustainable Development Goals. For architects, the Agenda and Goals define a comprehensive global development framework, EVERYWHERE, that considers the wellbeing of all people, EVERYONE.

Architects frequently opine about not being sufficiently understood, appreciated, and valued. Today, humanistic and tectonic revolutions define a relevance revolution for architecture. Nothing less than human destiny will be shaped by the urban conditions we create over the next generation. Nothing less than global climate and availability of sufficient resources to sustain life will be shaped by architecture’s tectonic transformation.

Architects have been offered relevance beyond our wildest yearnings. Whether we sought it or not, the world now demands a fundamental reorientation to both the humanistic and tectonic dimensions of our craft. If we cannot or will not rise to address these challenges, others will. The 21st century mandate for architecture is to reshape the world: Everything - Everywhere - Everyone. What exciting and challenging times for architects! What will we make of them?

Middle Atlantic Regional Council (MARC)

Regional Director/Councilor 2013-15 – representing the AIA District of Columbia, AIA Delaware, and AIA Maryland on the AIA National Board of Directors and AIA National Strategic Council

 

The MARC Region is a microcosm. AIA DC is a vibrant urban chapter with 2000 members (a “Big Sib”) operating the District Architecture Center (DAC) that raises public awareness through hundreds of activities with dozens of partners. AIA Maryland is comprised of AIA Baltimore, an innovative urban chapter with about 1000 members deeply engaged in its city, AIA Potomac Valley representing the dense suburban communities surrounding DC and Baltimore as well as distant portions of western Maryland, and AIA Chesapeake Bay made up mostly of the Eastern Shore of Maryland, a largely agricultural and recreational region. Both Potomac Valley and Chesapeake Bay have the challenge of providing member services where face-to-face opportunities are limited. AIA Delaware is the only component in the state and therefore provides every level of service to its members.

AIA Maryland

 

President 2012, Board 2010-12 – During my term on the Board of Directors, AIA Maryland purchased a Chapter House adjacent to the State House. THE Chapter House features a storefront where exhibits promoting architecture are routinely seen by legislators. As President, I testified on legislation affecting the profession and supported efforts to establish stable State PAC funding.

 

AIA Potomac Valley

 

President 2009, Board 2007-9 – During my Board term, the Potomac Valley Chapter purchased LEAFhouse, built by the University of Maryland for the 2007 Solar Decathlon, AIA’s first net-zero energy chapter house. As President, I engaged the chapter in local land-use policy development.

 

AIA 150 Greener Greenbelt Initiative Champion 2006-8 – Combining my two passions, sustainability and historic preservation, I spearheaded the Chapter’s AIA 150 public outreach project, the Greener Greenbelt Initiative. Planning goals established then still guide the stewardship and greening of the Roosevelt-era model community.

 

University of Maryland School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation

 

After attending Pratt Institute, I transferred to the University of Maryland where I earned my architecture degree in 1980. I have served on the Dean’s Circle with other prominent alumni since 2010.

 

Association for Preservation Technology International

 

Co-chair, Technical Committee on Sustainable Preservation 2005-8, Board 2007-8 – The Technical Committee on Sustainable Preservation was formed to promote collaboration between preservation and sustainability professionals. The committee was awarded the 2007 AIA Institute Honors for Collaborative Achievement. I was elected to Board of Directors where I serve as co-chair of the Training and Education committee. 

 

USGBC National Capital Region Chapter

 

Founding Board 2003-5 – I was a member of the founding Board of Directors of the National Capital Region Chapter of the United States Green Building Council where I served as programs chair and led efforts to establish the Emerging Green Builders program within the chapter.

Photo by Tom Nyein AIA

© 2019 Carl Elefante