2018 AIA President Carl Elefante
Gabriella Marks 2018 AIA President Carl Elefante

Architecture exists in tension between its humanistic and tectonic dimensions. This has always been true, although the pendulum swings from era to era. At times, shifting cultural, social, economic, and environmental conditions compel architects to fundamentally reconstitute human circumstances. At other times, evolving means and methods, expanding demand, and even the pure joy of making push architects to reinvent the “how” of building. Today both forces are pulling at architecture with extraordinary power.

Hurtling at breakneck speed through an unprecedented technological revolution, it is easy to become engulfed in architecture’s tectonic possibilities. We live in the age of iPhones and apps, and practice in the age of BIM and VR.

Architects are enthralled by the limitless opportunities of technology. But fascination with the new and now must not blind us to the most important, most urgent tectonic demand on architecture: arresting climate change. Through the Paris Agreement, our generation of architects has received a mandate to create carbon-free buildings, to retool everything about the way we design, construct, occupy, operate, maintain, and renew buildings.

The tectonics of architecture are not an end, but a means. Architecture serves human purposes. Today, those purposes are driving forward into uncharted territory just as rapidly as the technological revolution.

The astounding size of the global population, and the effects of our numbers, are the accelerants propelling today’s humanistic dimensions of architecture. Scientists have termed this the “Anthropocene era,” meaning that it is human impact that is defining Earth’s current geological era. In addition, most people live in cities today, and by century’s end, nearly nine in 10 will. For Earth, it is the Anthropocene; for people, the urban era.

Factors defining current human conditions were codified at the Habitat III summit into principles for global cooperation titled “The New Urban Agenda” and supported by 17 sustainable development goals. For architects, the agenda and its goals define a comprehensive global development framework that considers the well-being of all people.

Architects frequently opine about not being sufficiently understood, appreciated, and valued. Today, humanistic and tectonic revolutions define a relevance revolution for architecture. Nothing less than human destiny will be shaped by the urban conditions we create over the next generation. Nothing less than global climate and availability of sufficient resources to sustain life will be shaped by architecture’s tectonic transformation.

Architects have been offered relevance beyond our wildest yearnings. Whether we sought it or not, the world now demands a fundamental reorientation to both the humanistic and tectonic dimensions of our craft. If we cannot or will not rise to address these challenges, others will. The 21st-century mandate for architecture is to reshape the world: everything, everywhere, and everyone. These are exciting and challenging times for architects. What will we make of them?