Thomas Vonier, FAIA, 2017 AIA President
Photography: Carl Bower Thomas Vonier, FAIA, 2017 AIA President

Architects around the world seem to face the same issues. They certainly voice the same complaints: Fees aren’t adequate; clients expect too much, don’t value design, and don’t understand what we do; it takes too long to become an architect; other professions are taking over our territory; and, of course, nobody’s doing enough about any of it.

Well, what can we do?

We can design.

Architects tend to underestimate—or underuse—their power to influence. We overlook our ability to give physical form to concepts. Most people can’t easily shape images of how tomorrow might differ from today—they can’t “see” what something could become.

This ability to envision has the power to influence, and we can (and should) use it to cause change and affect outcomes.Even in the absence of strong leadership from national elected officials, many state and municipal governments—along with many businesses and citizens—will demand more economical and environmentally benign energy systems. They will continue to seek more equitable cities, affordable housing, and convenient lower-impact transit.

Residents in cities from Paris to Columbus, Ohio, have cheered steps to curb the dominance of private automobiles in their streets. Such plans meet with huge resistance at first, but eventually only the most diehard car enthusiasts (and lobbyists for the tire, road paving, and auto industries) remain skeptical. Most people now understand how the city can be friendlier for people on foot, in strollers, and on bicycles—and not just why it’s a good idea in theory.

The political will to make these changes comes in large measure from alluring designs by architects and planners, who show how much better things could be. There is force inherent in this ability to envision alternatives and to show possible futures.

We’ve all experienced the power of images and imagination—in winning support for an improved school, for a better streetscape, or for a new building or park. Most people can advocate for ideas, but few are able to wield the additional influence of giving ideas form. That’s the kind of influence we can use with state legislators, city officials, agency heads, and even members of Congress. Sound argument, compelling speech, and political heft will always have a place, but let’s neither forget nor underestimate our power to influence. As never before, we must use it to address our pressing challenges.