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At 151, AIA Enjoys Post-Anniversary Bounce

January 16, 2008

By C. J. Hughes

The Empire State Building basked in the limelight after taking top honors in last year’s “America’s Favorite Architecture” poll, in which the American Institute of Architects (AIA) asked the public to pick the nation’s most beloved 150 buildings in honor of its 150th anniversary. Now, architects are taking a turn. Buoyed by the immense popularity of sesquicentennial events—the AIA’s Web site, which usually averages 7,000 hits a week, was slammed with a server-crashing 27,000 hits-per-hour after results of the top 150 poll were unveiled—they’re capitalizing on the freshly elevated profile of their profession to shape policy, in ways large and small, across the country.

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Yesterday, for instance, the AIA launched an initiative titled “Walk the Walk” to promote sustainable design and help the nation move toward the AIA’s goal, announced last year, of achieving a 50 percent reduction in carbon emissions from buildings by the year 2010. Through an extensive advertising campaign, as well as providing online toolkits, it hopes to educate consumers, business owners, and architects about the benefits of going green.

Local AIA chapters nationwide are also capitalizing on the group’s momentum. The Seattle component has been strongly advocating for the removal of the 2.3-mile Alaskan Way Viaduct, a 55-year-old double-decker section of Highway 99 that severs the city from its waterfront. Whether or not the AIA’s influence prompted Washington governor Chris Gregoire to announce on January 4 that the span will be razed by 2012 is debatable, says Stephanie Pure, the component’s spokesperson, but her 2,000-member group is now flexing its muscle for a seat on the new task force deliberating Highway 99’s future. All in all, she adds, the sesquicentennial attention “really helped establish us as an organization with deep roots and credibility.”

In Minnesota, meanwhile, the AIA’s 150 poll prompted a show at the state capitol called “Livability 101,” which presented photos of local buildings that embody AIA principles about deterring crime through design and making facades of new offices fit historic streetscapes, says Beverly Hauschild-Baron, that component’s executive vice president. The 2,200-member group also hosted two forums with government leaders that together drew 550 guests to tackle such issues as adding green space to Minneapolis’s Washington Avenue and constructing a light-rail line to St. Paul’s. Additional forums will follow in 2008. “These events have drawn the architects closer to the policy-makers,” Hauschild-Baron says. “It’s been extremely positive.”

Many local AIA efforts were already underway before 2007, sparked by the AIA’s Blueprint for America initiative in 2006 to improve communities through better-designed bus stops, perhaps, or additional affordable housing. Still, states like Mississippi used the top 150 poll to breathe new life into existing goals, aided by a contest of its own in which 24,000 residents voted on their own favorite local buildings. A dozen winners now grace a calendar, including the onion-dome-topped Longwood mansion in Natchez and an Art Deco junior high school in Jackson. And this year Mississippi architects will work with lawmakers to revise state’s building codes. “By leaps and bounds, we are engaging the public,” says Joseph Blake, the component’s executive director.

Nationally, that engagement helped secure 10 design-related provisions in December’s federal Energy Independence and Security Act Bill, according to RK Stewart, FAIA, the 2007 national component president. The bill not only calls for cutting CO2 emissions from federal buildings, it sets new efficiency standards for residential boilers, air conditioners, and appliances.

Stewart also encouraged architects to pen more editorials to their local newspapers. “We have come of age in terms of how to best bring our issues forward and be the most effective advocates for the built environment,” he says.

This increased dialogue could also help bolster the AIA’s ranks, says 2008 national president Marshall Purnell, FAIA. The AIA currently numbers 83,000 architects and the group is looking to add some of the 29,000 licensed U.S. architects who are not yet members, for a total membership goal of 100,000 by 2010. Purnell says that an even more important benefit of increased public dialog would be to inspire children to careers in architecture, to think, “maybe that’s something that I can do.”

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