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    Credit: WILLIAM STEWART PHOTOGRAPHY

A recent visit to a local supermarket got me to thinking about what may be one of the great paradoxes of our times: Despite our having access to more tools than ever to facilitate communication, are we in fact having fewer meaningful interactions with one another and our surroundings?

As I walked the aisles, I was struck by how many shoppers seemed to be talking out loud to themselves, something that normally makes me a bit uneasy. But then I reminded myself to look for the mobile device. Those who were not engaged in loud monologues had cell phones tucked between their heads and shoulders as they loaded their carts as if on autopilot.

Yes, there certainly was a lot of communication going on, but not with other shoppers in the immediate vicinity. Instead, distracted by whatever business they were carrying on outside the walls of the store, people kept accidentally bumping into one another.

How often have we walked into a meeting whose participants sit behind a wall of laptop screens, ostensibly taking notes but more likely scanning emails? Deprived of the subtle feedback from the body language of others and the signals of our environment, are we at risk of being somehow less connected with one another—not despite but because of the many communications tools readily at hand? Are we too often missing what really is being said either by a colleague or by our surroundings?

The annual AIA Convention is your chance to enjoy unique in-person networking opportunities where new connections are made and old friendships rekindled—even though the Convention has been making some virtual inroads on the people-to-people experience. You’re no less likely to be friended, linked-in, and tweeted at Convention, but what are these compared to the shared “Aha!” moments over a cup of coffee or the chance encounter with a friend who now practices in Hong Kong?

This physical immediacy is what, to me, gets at the heart of the magic of architecture. Architecture is, after all, the most public of the arts. It’s a performance that gathers strength from the constantly shifting real-time dynamic between actors and audience. It’s not an experience you can phone in; it’s too good and important not to share with others, whether you’re at home, in the office, or in casual conversation with a friend as you walk through your neighborhood.

We know the profession and the public are eager for this kind of engagement. How else to explain the growing number and popularity of downtown storefront architecture centers like the District Architecture Center, which opened in Washington, D.C., in time for this year’s Convention? The most obvious design feature of the Washington storefront is the expanse of glass. The resulting transparency communicates a welcoming message inviting real-time engagement. The day may come when someone in accounting concludes that a streamed Convention downloaded to wherever you happen to be makes the most sense economically. It could happen.

But while this Convention is up and running, I’m going to enjoy the press of handshakes, the shared laughs, the new and renewed connections, the inevitable disagreements, and the equally inevitable insights that happen when architects get together. I’m going to leave the laptop in my hotel room and meet with colleagues from this country and abroad.

I’ll get back to it when its use appropriately facilitates communication. In the meantime, I’m going to be in the moment. Architecture is about people, and nothing quite replaces active engagement with the real thing.

Join our conversation at aia.org.

Jeff Potter, FAIA, 2012 President