William Stewart

While I decided to stay close to my beloved Virginia mountains after graduation, one of my fellow classmates in Virginia Tech’s architecture program, Mike Mense, FAIA, packed his gear and headed north to set up practice in Alaska. A brilliant scholar and an enviably talented designer, Mike has stayed in touch over the years after we went our different ways. No less passionate about his chosen career than when we worked together in studio, Mike recently asked me where our profession would be headed if we succeeded with Repositioning the Institute. In his note, he included a copy of a presentation he delivered to AIA Alaska’s Central Section about the current state of the profession and where it ought to be trending. I was particularly struck by the words that accompanied an image he titled “From Monument to Instrument:”

Monumentality has long ceased being our most important contribution. Architects will always inevitably write the palpable history of our culture. As important now, though, is the role our work plays in the day-to-day lives of our clients and communities. If we make environments and buildings that support human life and the specific goals of each project, and if we emphasize that as our primary goal, without downgrading in the least our aesthetic concerns, we will become much more important, and valued.

Mike knew perfectly well I’d snap at that bait. As I thought through his words and the passion behind them, I wondered: Has monumentality, for the sake of monumentality, ever been our profession’s “most important contribution?” The public (and some clients) might think so, especially since our media environment celebrates the exceptional, the odd, the one-off, and the unusual. But when I look around at the contributions, both humble and sublime, that architects have made to shape and nurture communities, I know that monumentality does not reflect the bulk of the work that day in and day out enriches our communities both large and small.

These are the stories that need to be told, stories about architects and architecture that, again to quote Mike (and here I’m in full agreement), “support human life.” That’s what most of us do. It’s what gives what we do value. Telling that story is indeed one of the objectives of the AIA’s Repositioning Initiative.

This commitment to explore a broader narrative of the many different ways architecture advances life has guided the recent work of the AIA’s Awards Task Force. The recommendations of the task force rightly conclude there is no inherent disconnect or hierarchy between aesthetics and function. Rather, they are complementary aspects of any persuasive definition of excellence. Architecture at its best is indeed an instrument to advance life. It is not simply a monument or an image isolated on a page.

There will always be a place for work that leans toward the purely sculptural, that wows the eye and teases the imagination. On this, Mike makes another point that hits the mark. “Architecture is cultural,” he says. “It shapes culture for the future and, at the same time, reflects the history of that culture. This challenge—to use our talents to serve and support life in all its contradictions and complexities—is no different today than it was yesterday or will be tomorrow.”

Helene Combs Dreiling FAIA
2014 President