William Stewart

There are many reasons to attend the 2014 AIA National Convention—and I could go on for a while, based on my own attendance history, about inspiring keynote speakers, world-class educational opportunities, and meeting those on the cutting edge of building materials and products.

Of course, I always learn a lot about the host city itself—and in the case of Chicago, there’s always something new to discover.

Above all, though, the core value of the convention is the opportunity for fellowship with my colleagues. Chance encounters in the hall, tea with a long-time friend, serving on a panel with other small-business owners, or even sharing the main stage with remarkable architects—communion and communication matter more to me than any other aspects of a convention.

Here’s the hinge of my argument, though:

Talking amongst ourselves brings oxygen to the blood of our work, but finding opportunities to talk to others outside of architecture gives our work purpose and context.

To be truly useful, communication must be more than what we want to say (or give) in terms of expertise and experience; there must be an eagerness to receive. We must listen. And, not only listen to members of the public already actively interested in architecture, but to seldom-served constituencies who must have a voice in shaping their own environments: residents of low-income housing, individuals who are in prison, patients in hospitals, the elderly in nursing homes, and children in school.

People will engage when they believe they have something to contribute that others will find meaningful. Instead of initiating a conversation with the implicit assumption that we architects have all the answers, imagine the possibilities when all the parties touched by architecture (and that means everyone!) are open to developing a shared agenda, one that’s long-term in its possibilities and implications.

Such engagement marks a healthy partnership.

Far different from the speed-dating approach of many so-called “outreach” initiatives, these partnerships are like a marriage: They are evidence of a long-term commitment in which the parties are, in a fundamental sense, considered equal and are respected for the unique assets each brings to the relationship.

Developing an understanding of the power of architecture to transform lives is too big of a challenge and too important to leave to media celebrities and a few notable experts. It’s a joint endeavor in which architects and the public connect in a constructive conversation that grows more vibrant over time.

Helene Combs Dreiling, FAIA
2014 President