Delirious Philadelphia — AIA National 2016

Philadelphia City Hall

What role can architecture play in addressing the socioeconomic, political, and the socio-politics issues we encounter?

How can we, as architects and designers, unite within and outside the profession to encourage a greater focus on social issues, in strengthening communities and bringing equitable, impactful change to our social systems?

I have viewed architecture and design, in some shape or form, as a channel to seek these social solutions. Each day, architects’ drawings reflect their vision to change the existing environment, for better and for worse…and at vastly different scales. Yet, I often am discouraged by how static architecture as a profession can be — tied to providing potential social value yet the demands to maintain a profit under the current professional business structure discourages many designers from seeking such impact.

Over the course of the last year, major restructuring efforts have been led by American Institute of Architects (AIA), AIAS and other major design affiliates to adapt a leaner, more flexible, transparent, relevant approach spanning beyond the traditional norm, mission and demographic in architecture. Through involvement with the AIA New Orleans locally, NAAB, AIAS’ Freedom by Design nationally, and various conferences throughout the year, I have witnessed firsthand the discussions and changes. This convergence in Philly could represent a major paradigm shift in the profession, and I was curious, would 2016 AIA National be this seminal conference in architecture? Could I find an area to further assist in this transformation?

EXPECTATIONS The City of Brotherly Love – Philadelphia, PA – was a fitting destination for over 9,000 architects, designers, and architecture students at this year’s 2016 AIA National Conference. Walking towards the Convention Center in Central City, where the majority of the events were held, I couldn’t help but feel slight angst and anticipation at the idea oft-elusive architectural thought leaders were converging on the same grounds as the Founding Fathers to share their thoughts on the future of a shifting profession.

HIGHLIGHTS The conference promised an exciting program of events (keynotes, tours, and access to intriguing Philadelphia venues). From the Equity by Design Hackathon, which focused on encouraging designers to re-think the practices in terms of social, economic, and gender equity; to hearing how thought leaders like James Timberlake are integrated building performance and sustainability into their projects; to meeting Tulane alumni Garrett Jacobs and hear how, as Executive Director of the Open Architecture Collaborative, he is trying to advance the possibility for a participatory design approach, AIA National allowed me to sense out the scope of the profession and the possibilities ahead. A bulk of the conversations I had were particularly geared towards the AIA’s advocacy, internal (professional) and external (public) image, and strategies to re-position and re-imagine the role architecture and the AIA, as the profession’s overarching governing body – interesting to those involved in the profession and in the changes and banal to “outsiders” who are not. I was interested in hearing the projects that fellow students and professionals were working on and trends they were noticing across the country and around the world.

Our team presenting our pitch - "Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego Building" to the Jury Panel (EquityxDesign)
Our team presenting our pitch – “Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego Building” to the Jury Panel (EquityxDesign)
"Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego Building" introduces young children, particularly girls, to the built environment at an early age (EquityxDesign / A.L)
“Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego Building” introduces young children, particularly girls, to the built environment at an early age (EquityxDesign / A.L)
Our team brainstorming potential ideas and preparing our presentation
Our team brainstorming potential ideas and preparing our presentation
EquityxDesign Hackathon Ice-Breakers Session
EquityxDesign Hackathon Ice-Breakers Session

EQUITY BY DESIGN HACKATHON The hands-on, engaging nature EquityxDesign Hackathon workshop resonated with me most, most likely because it embodies many of the social innovation and “changemaking” principles that will allow the architecture to reflect on its shortcomings and adapt accordingly. EquityxDesign, according to their website, “is a call to action for both women and men to realize the goal of equitable practice, advance architecture, sustain the profession and communicate the value of design to society.” Thanks to a scholarship funded by Autodesk and other partners, I was one of eight young professionals able to attend the workshop, which brought together a wide array of socially-aware architects practicing and teaching across the country.

The Hackathon participants divided ourselves into teams of five-six with a general task to design an open-ended product that addressed a defined problem, expressed in a statement, “within the architecture field, related to the architecture field, and outside of the architecture field.” Hoping to address issues of 1.) perception and 2.) education within architecture, our team devised a game geared to young children, called “Where in the World Is Carmen Santiago – Building?” My teammate, A.L. Hu, a graduate student at Columbia GSAPP, succinctly summarized our solution:

Through role playing, solving puzzles, and taking on construction projects, game players develop their knowledge of the valuable role architects play in constructing the built environment, especially in the context of climate change. “Where in the World” seeks to change the next generation’s perception of architects and to empower children to pursue architecture as a career.

Essentially, the Hackathon was a condensed iteration of the entire design-architectural process. Except, whereas designers have weeks, months, even years to develop their ideas, Hackathon participants have only a few hours. It culminated in a short pitch. Any storytelling tool was fair game.

For more detail, you can check out another blog I co-wrote with my teammates: HERE )


Keynote by Julie Louise Dreyfus
Keynote by Julie Louise Dreyfus
Presentation by Joel Pominville, 2015-6 AIAS National Vice President
Presentation by Joel Pominville, 2015-6 AIAS National Vice President

KEYNOTES In organizing past conferences, I’ve found the keynotes attempts to summarize the themes of the conference. This year’s lineup was a muddled conglomeration of actress Julie Lousise Dreyfus (of Veep, formerly of Seinfeld); architect-designer Neri Oxman, at the MIT Media Lab; and architecture icon Rem Koolaas, Founding Principal of OMA/AMO (based in Rotterdam) and professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. The selection of JLD was confusing and didn’t offer many insights other than a comparison of how Dreyfus’s political comedy show parallels the absurdities of the 2016 Presidential Election. Oxman shared her avante-garde exploration in joining technology and fabrication with biology and nature. Her designs, ranging from generating complex geometric pavilions and forms using bees and silkworms as “printers.” Rem Koolhass, slightly overhyped, shared how the architectural profession has fundamental flaws in its stagnation and how architects-designers can turn their skillsets as synthesizers and innovators of information (more on his lecture, here).

CONCLUSION – ARCHITECTURE AS A CHANGE-MAKER After attending AIA National I noticed, with the paradigm shift in the architecture profession, there is a tremendous amount of opportunity in the field, for those who are willing to devote their time to address the need in aligning architecture as field with the changing times, changing technologies, changing demographic in the profession. The current generation of young designers and architects are going to be responsible for continuing this change this discussion. Through AIAS and the Young Architects Forum, younger voices are beginning to imagine how the profession can change, and the AIA appears willing than in the past provide this platform.

The Equity by Design Hackathon is one example of how design-thinking brainstorming can provide a rough but innovative solutions. It’s similar to the techniques encouraged by the Taylor Center and the design thinking workshops. Not only are architects problem-solvers in that they propose solutions through design but at its best, they can envision and cultivate rich and vibrant communities and cultures. Hackathons or design-thinking exercises directed inwards on the profession, just as professionals conduct these charettes within their communities, can be seen as a potent tool in spearheading innovative ideas and change.

Personally, I’ve tried to adapt some of these techniques from Taylor Center and as a Taylor representative for the InnovateNOLA summit last December, trying to apply them forward. Through the national AIAS Freedom by Design program, I have integrated these exercises in regional and national conferences, to varying degrees of success, encouraging architecture students to employ these techniques in the work they do with communities.

I also believe an awareness and initiatives geared towards addressing the lack of diversity in the profession, such as EquityxDesign, is vastly important if architecture is to be more inclusive. Designers-architects who tend to break the mold of existing paradigm – that architects can champion movements beyond design, such as gender and racial equity, as Rosa Sheng has through Equity by Design – are beginning to become more embraced. Design has always encouraged individuals to break the creative status quo, and is beginning to accept modifications to the organizational and structural status quo.

I entered the conference hoping to distill great lessons, strategies, and inspiration from practicing professionals regarding what was going on; I believe to an extend, this did occur, not to the extent that I was expecting. I think there has been progress, though I worry not enough. The overall conference was eerily similar to last year’s in Atlanta. I was able to reunite with friends and meeting many new faces, Tulane alumni and professionals, who I might work with in the future. In the coming years, I hope to continue to do my part in pushing this discussion forward and aligning talking points to real world implementation in the built environment.

Photo with Margo Jones, FAIA at Fellowship Investiture Ceremony
Photo with Margo Jones, FAIA at Fellowship Investiture Ceremony



The Changemaker Catalyst Award covered travel and registration expenses and enabled Braham Berg, an M.Arch + MSRED Candidate at the Tulane School of Architecture, and SISE minor, to attend the American Institute of Architects (AIA) National convention in Philadelphia, PA from May 17, 2016 to May 22, 2016.