Carl Elefante, FAIA, 2018 AIA President
Photography: Gabriella Marks Carl Elefante, FAIA, 2018 AIA President

Without a doubt, the word that best describes the frenetic events of 2017 is “disruption.” Executive orders on immigration disrupt global architectural practice and the flow of international students to our nation’s architecture schools. Abandoning the Paris climate accord disrupts decades of policy promoting improved building performance. Within a single month, Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria disrupt the lives of millions—including thousands of architects—for years or even decades to come.

With 2017 a year of disruption, it is imperative for architects to make 2018 a year of possibility. Indeed, there are compelling reasons to believe that 2018 can be a threshold moment for architecture. Here are three.

First and foremost, the urban era is dawning. Today, for the first time in human history, the majority of the world’s population lives in cities. Happening even more rapidly than population growth, urbanization is accelerating at a breakneck pace. By the end of the century, the U.N. projects that 84 percent of the world’s population will live in cities. For architects, nothing is more significant. Cities will shape the future of our profession and of humanity.

Second, in field after field, research is focusing on environmental influences. In education, improved test scores and learning outcomes are linked to better school design. In the workplace, increased collaboration, creativity, and productivity are linked to environmental quality. Perhaps most dramatically, environmental factors have been shown to contribute directly to the major public health challenges facing our nation. At the top of the list are obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. Architects don’t have to seek relevance but to seize it. As Winston Churchill said: “First, we shape our buildings; thereafter, they shape us.” By shaping the built environment, architects shape lives.

And lastly, our profession is called upon to resolve—not improve, but resolve—its systemic inequities and lack of diversity. We must, because it is the right thing to do. 2018 marks the 50th anniversary of Whitney M. Young Jr.’s speech to the AIA Convention in Portland. Since then, the percentage of African-American participation in the profession has not measurably increased. Young’s challenge to architects remains. We must, because it is required if our profession is to build its capacity to serve those whose need is the greatest.

Twentieth-century architects shaped the modern world. America’s cities and towns became the greatest engines of commerce and progress since the dawn of civilization. Yet, as the 21st century hits its stride, we must recognize that the world they built also produced intractable social, economic, and environmental problems. Looking ahead, architects need better principles and practices to address the crucial, even existential, issues now confronting our world. We need a blueprint for better.

The historian Arnold J. Toynbee made the following observation: “The twentieth century will be chiefly remembered by future generations not as an era of political conflicts or technical inventions, but as an age in which human society dared to think of the welfare of the whole human race as a practical objective.”

In the last century, universal human progress became conceivable. The dawning of the urban era, the relevance of the built environment in shaping people’s lives, and our profession’s responsibility to serve our communities fully makes the well-being of everyone, everywhere, our 21st century imperative. In 2018, let’s work together to overcome obstacles and embrace limitless possibilities. The future of architecture will be shaped by our efforts.