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From AIA to FAIA to GAIA: A Final Warning May 8, 2009

Posted by randydeutsch in Ambiguity, creativity, problem solving.


To what does an architect aspire?

Or, to paraphrase Freud, What do architects want? A leadership role in a design firm. To design a large-scaled international project or a diminutive, well-detailed, well-accoutered house, unimpeded by client input. For some it’s to make a comfortable living doing what they love while having a positive effect on the built environment with no harm done to the natural. For many while they scale the heights of their profession there is no higher calling than to garner the esteem of their well-regarded peers and allies. In times of suppressed expectations – when our aspirational selves are reality-checked at the door – any of these look attractive.

Last weekend, when architects gathered for their annual convention, the 2009 AIA Jury of Fellows honored at an investiture ceremony at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco 112 AIA members elevated to its prestigious College of Fellows. No small accomplishment, statistically out of a total AIA membership of nearly 86,000, fewer than 1 in 32 are distinguished with the honor of fellowship. The FAIA tag is an honor awarded to members who have made significant contributions to the profession in education, volunteer work, service to society, practice, leading the institute or related organization, design, alternative career, preservation, urban design, government/ industry, volunteer work and research. Election to fellowship not only recognizes the achievements of architects as individuals, but also their significant contribution to architecture and society on a national level. That said, noticeably absent this year from this distinguished list of significant professional contributions were categories for “saving the earth,” “protecting the environment,” and “solving global warming,” all significant contributions to architecture and society on a global – as in the globe or planetary level. And all addressing our immediate eco-emergency, perhaps the most pressing problem of our or any age.

Which brings us to GAIA, named after the Greek goddess who represented the earth, and like architects, brought forth order from chaos. Just as AIA architects today aspire to become FAIAs, fellows of the institute in turn could leverage their considerable respect and esteem, power within the profession, leadership and experience to lead the profession to accomplish nothing less than protection of the earth and healing of the world, effectively saving the planet in one fell swoop. Imagine when architects gather in New Orleans the 2011 that the AIA Jury of Fellows elevate FAIAs to GAIA. The critieria that would entail would need to be determined, but once FAIAs have taken their well-deserved year-long victory lap they would then get down to the brass tacks of becoming GAIAs. In doing so they would evolve from being custodians of the built environment to keepers and protectors of the unbuilt environment. Whom better than those we have already honored to lead the charge to right what is wrong with the earth? FAIAs in elevating to GAIAs essentially become Fellows of the Earth. Many factors – population increase, global warming among them – are contributing to upset the balance of forces that make earth conducive to life. FAIAs would lead all architects to turn their attention to innovatively address housing for population growth, sustainable land use in urban areas and beyond and preservation of existing resources. Imagine a design competition where you were asked to submit, on three 30×40 boards, a scheme to save the earth from extinction. That’s the challenge we have before us – and who better to get us there but FAIA-turned-GAIAs? A challenging yet solvable assignment. This is no time for small thinking.

The world needs leaders and the architectural profession has them in droves. In becoming GAIAs, FAIAs could leverage their considerable problem solving ability, effective verbal and graphic communication, brainpower, creativity, comfort with ambiguity and legendary grasp of the big picture coupled with granular detail.

In fact, DesignIntelligence is hosting their annual Summit entitled Voice, Influence and Power: Taking the Reins of Leadership, Sept. 30 – Oct. 2 this year in Chicago. One hundred delegates from the world’s most influential AEC firms will convene to identify change drivers, analyze emerging data, and explore innovation in sustainable design at this unique meeting, which is co-hosted by the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Speakers at the by-invitation-only conference include some of the most celebrated thinkers of our time including A Whole New Mind’s Daniel Pink, Moshe Safdie, Foster + Partner’s Stefan Behling, TED Conference founder and architect Richard Saul Wurman amongst others. With Chicago’s Mayor Daley’s Chief Environmental Officer Sadhu Johnson and AS+GG’s Adrian Smith present no doubt the subject of leadership in sustainability will be addressed. The Design Futures Council is currently seeking nominations for Emerging Leaders.

While GAIA places nature before humanity, the natural environment ahead of the manmade, this is not a call for architects to become horticulturists but rather to shift priorities for the near term. The economy and situation we find ourselves in should support this effort. GAIA envisions the earth as a self-regulating living system and was the title of James Lovelock’s 1974 book as well as a recently issued final warning for those who did not heed his claims. It is a holistic, total system to produce environments conducive to life. Architects already do the same and should be naturals at it.



1. Timothy Hubbard - May 15, 2009

Ultimately, the largest hurdle in this economic downturn is to be able to convince the small project client that various green alternatives make sense in the big picture when the client is informed that they may have to come up with more upfront capitol (which is difficult to find) in order to achieve a green solution. Or, in many cases the client may be required to give up some of the program items that they were interested in. Many village building departments make it more difficult to achieve the green solution by requiring much more backup data as opposed to going with the standard “tried and true” construction solutions. As time goes on however, new ground is being broken by a number of design and construction pioneers and I am hopeful that these conditions will adjust to a more conducive environment for positive change.

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