Ingalill Wahlroos-Ritter, FAIA
Ingalill Wahlroos-Ritter, FAIA

Too often in studio juries and lectures I hear architects say that we don’t have the agency to address “wicked” problems—that issues of equity, homelessness, economic inequality, and immigration are too complex to solve. I disagree.

We feel powerless in the face of decisions being made by politicians, corporate leaders, and supervisors. We can, however, combat that powerlessness, not through any singular hegemonic gesture, but through the accumulation of small acts that architects make: which materials to use, whom to hire, which projects to accept. These choices are not without risk, not always politically expedient, often contrary to traditional decision-making processes, and occasionally adversarial to the bottom line. Yet these micro-decisions have consequences that extend far beyond the boundaries of architecture.

For change to be meaningful, it must come from within our discipline. As architects, we have within our disciplinary methods the means to address the thorniest issues through our micro-actions. And therein lies much of our capacity for enabling change. How can we as architects craft a purposeful voice in the conversations— #MeToo, climate change, immigration, automation—confronting us now?

School is a place of empowerment—a sanctuary and a place for the open exchange of ideas. We can inculcate integrity and curiosity in students through instruction that blurs academic boundaries through problem-based projects that link to examples in practice, engaging partners and inviting solutions outside of the traditional studio. We can provide students with the sense that they can effect change; and then they do.

We can tackle economic inequity by undertaking projects that reach the underrepresented—civic engagement work for nonprofits and beautiful environments for resource-poor communities—despite minimal margins; and by working with agencies to help establish policies that provide healthy urban infrastructures.

We can fight climate change by implementing each of the cumulative approaches available to us in performance-based design.

In our workplaces, we can foster equity and inclusion by establishing and enforcing a policy of zero tolerance; by taking a cold, hard look at pay parity; and by implementing elastic office structure models, tailored to particular project demands matched to employee skill sets, talents, and caregiving circumstances.

It’s time we recognize that the notion of “merit” is inherently biased. We can diversify our profession by establishing and implementing the many steps of a diversity plan. We can hire colleagues whose values and backgrounds are unlike our own, recognizing and celebrating that different viewpoints lead to innovative solutions—and a critical questioning of the status quo.

We can open pathways into the profession by volunteering in K-12 programs, committing to philanthropic outreach, and funding diversity scholarships. We can sponsor a studio and offer internships to students, helping them accrue their AXP hours.

We can respond rapidly to changes in the profession by encouraging enrollment in boot camps and post-professional study in areas such as resilient design, virtual and augmented reality, and public interest design. We can rethink project delivery: If doctors can practice online, why can’t architects?

At its best, architecture is an optimistic discipline. A well-designed project reflects a moment in time as well as a vision for the future.

At our best, we embrace integrity and curiosity in each of our decisions, through the classrooms we craft, the workplaces we establish, and the buildings we design. We have the power to change the world for the better through cumulative effect—student by student, lesson by lesson, building by building, practice by practice—thereby reclaiming our voices and rediscovering the joy of architecture. If each of these incremental steps is guided by our values, they will add up to a powerful whole.

Editor's note: We regularly publish opinion columns that we think would be of service to our readers. The views and conclusions from these authors are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.