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10.20.2006
Centers for Architecture Multiply
Following New Yorkks lead, civic-minded AIA chapters across the country are opening their own centers to reach out to their members and their communities alike. David Sokol reports.

A couple of weeks ago, several hundred well-wishers, including San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom and 2007 AIA national president R. K. Stewart, poured into the sixth floor of San Francisco’s historic Hallidie Building to fête the local AIA chapter’s newly renovated home. More than improved digs, the renovation also inaugurates the Center for Architecture + Design, a gallery, lecture, and multipurpose space. This is the first West Coast forum for professional dialogue about and public appreciation for architecture as well as design.

A week and a half earlier, members of the Portland, Oregon, component were looking forward to their own celebration: Participants selected to design its new center in a 5,000-square-foot former horse stable gathered on site to check out office furniture and systems. The test drive was part of a two-day-long charrette to devise big-idea concepts that would define the large-scale redo to come. And throughout the fall, four Texas chapters of the AIA will be opening their own centers for architecture.

Beyond these six snapshots, centers for architecture are sprouting up across the country. The phenomenon reflects architecture’s popularization as much as it responds to current events. Sally Ann Fly, executive director of AIA Austin, said, “You can’t avoid TV programming on everything from small space design to a complete home construction. With the impact of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita last year, the more basic issues of urban planning have become cocktail-party conversation.”

AIA New York executive director Rick Bell traces the impetus further back, noting, “After 9/11, people were increasingly aware that good design impacts the livability of a community. Public interest in architecture was probably mounting even before that, as a result of greater awareness of branding and the rise of star architects.” Portland AIA president Nancy Merryman also acknowledged, “We’ve been a victim of our own success. Combine our growing internship and continuing education programs with our aspiration to attract the public to our gallery, and we’ve outgrown our current office.”

AIA-shepherded centers for architecture date to 1991, when the Seattle chapter renovated its 2,000-square-foot downtown office to face the street and, correspondingly, launched the Resource Center for Architecture. According to Marga Rose Hancock, interim executive vice president of the Seattle AIA, the storefront reorientation “immediately transformed the operation. Not only did it pique people’s curiosity but they could actually walk in and put their hands on architects’ stuff. We started seminars about how to select an architect, which we’ve been giving once a month basically ever since. We’ve educated thousands of people.”

The Seattle chapter renovated its space again, in 2004. This time, AIA Seattle Young Architects Forum radically transformed the interior, but the mission remained the same. Most centers in this current crop, though, are taking programmatic cues from the Center for Architecture in New York. Hancock described the different approaches: “I very much admire the New York Center for Architecture; their general credo is ‘Architecture as Public Policy,’ which dovetails well with how they operate their space. [It’s also the official theme of this year’s AIA president Mark Strauss.] The philosophy that has guided us since 1991 was ‘Architect as a Resource,’ which tries to convey a sense of accessibility. It’s a different dialogue from that promulgated by the New York center, and I think they’re complementary.”

Indeed, Fly remembers attending a conference in which Bell described the development of the Center for Architecture, and thinking, “By golly, it was just what we had imagined!” Bell later visited the Austin strategic planning committee, and Fly said the component is actively emulating many elements of the New York predecessor. The center, which will operate under a five-year lease in an Art Deco service station, will take occupancy in late November with an official grand opening shortly thereafter.

AIA national president Kate Schwennsen noted, “The success of the New York center has not gone unnoticed by those considering starting their own centers.” However, “centers are specific not only to the profession of architecture but to their respective locales,” she observed. 

So while Seattle continues to reach out to potential clients and the year-old Virginia Center for Architecture, located in a restored John Russell Pope mansion in Richmond, functions more like a museum, other centers are choosing a path somewhere in the middle. 

“I think we’re a hybrid,” said Margie O’Driscoll, executive director of the San Francisco chapter of the AIA. “We are a very active chapter in terms of public outreach, but we’re also about our members having the most up-to-date information about products, services, and techniques.”

Echoes of New York will resonate to visitors of the San Francisco center, who will immediately notice that the AIA is sharing its space with other related associations, including the California chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council and local chapter of the AIGA. While O’Driscoll noted that many Bay Area designers cross disciplines, the move is similar to Bell’s signing on what he calls “partner organizations” in New York—groups he has invited to use the space for events ranging from book launches to continuing education classes to public lectures. He reasoned that such a strategy is “effective in public policy and engaging civic life—you don’t isolate yourself.” O’Driscoll further hopes to link exhibitions with those that appear in centers like New York’s. 

O’Driscoll, like many other AIA leaders, also see the new centers as a chance to lead by example. As in Seattle, the San Francisco center, designed by local architect Alfred Quezada, Jr., is aiming for a minimum LEED-Silver rating. (The New York center employed many sustainable measures, notably, a geothermal heating system, and is considering getting a LEED rating retroactively.) “Clients say green costs too much money or they question the look. They don’t understand the rich variety of products and services available that meet a very high aesthetic as well as meet sustainable criteria,” said O’Driscoll. “Here our members can take potential clients and clients into the space and say, ‘Look, this is the best of modern design and it’s highly sustainable.’”

Bell emphasized that while New York’s Center for Architecture established a precedent, other chapters are forging their own paths. He also acknowledged that New York’s isn’t perfect. Given their heavy exhibition load, the building has become tight for the New York chapter’s growing staff. Bell added that a bookstore and bar/café would be nice.

Despite any latent faults, New York’s and other cities’ new AIA centers are reflecting a sea change not only for a public curious about architecture but for the AIA itself. “The AIA has stopped looking so fat and gray,” Bell said. “Any organization that wants to be self-perpetuating after 149 years has to bring in young people.”

While the proliferation of new convergence points for the architecture community and the public proves that the centers’ movement has gone mainstream, two new efforts hint at its future evolution. At this year’s AIA national convention, members learned that a new committee, which includes Bell, is planning a center for architecture at its Washington, D.C., headquarters—a literal “American Institute of Architecture,” he noted. Also, in Seattle, Hancock has begun work on a project called “the de-center for architecture,” in which she makes long-term visits at members’ offices, which she hopes will yield new initiatives. “What’s the future of the organization in our changing world when people go to chat rooms rather than meetings? Maybe we want an AIA-mobile. It’s been kind of a joke, but I have begun to take it more seriously.”

Ironically, Hancock’s project couldn’t have been inspired without a center for architecture. “During the 2004 remodel, we relocated for eight or nine months while the construction was going on. We lived with [local architecture firm] Arai Jackson Ellison Murakami, and it was wonderful. We’ve all been around, but we hadn’t really spent all that much time directly in architects’ offices. We really got insights into how what we do and what they do are related. It was fascinating.” 

David Sokol