Architecture’s Engine for Change

By Nicholas E. Vlattas, AIA, and Deborah Marquardt.

I admit it. The 40th anniversary of Woodstock washed over me in a wave of nostalgia like the lyrics to Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi: “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.”

That, coupled with the 40th anniversary of our country landing on the moon, caused me to reflect on two questions. Have we, as a profession, held on to the ideals for social, political and environmental change represented by Woodstock? Have we, as a profession, continued to ask ‘what if?’ in a way that might take us to other galaxies and beyond?

August 18, 1969 outside of Bethel, New York. Image courtesy Ric Manning.

Why has it taken 40 years for us to embrace fully the tenets of sustainability? How did we buy into suburban sprawl, when it went against everything we believed about community? How did we, with our buildings, become responsible for nearly half of all greenhouse gas emissions in the United States?

It’s not easy being an architect in business. Often there are contradictions between what we believe and what we do. Sometimes we must balance critical decisions that keep food on the tables of our employees against the greater good. We are human. And yes, so were some of the Woodstock “hippies,” who cut their hair, took jobs on Wall Street and bought McMansions and large SUVs.

But as we head into 2010, I am very excited about what is possible in the next 40 years. I can’t wait to witness the next “giant leap for mankind.”I am optimistic that our professional legacy to humanity will be significant by 2050. Why?

I am cheered by the ever-increasing number of certified green buildings, though a recent tally by the U.S. Green Building Council suggests we have a long way to go. According to a recent report, 88 projects in Chicago have earned Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification, making it the “greenest city” by that measure. Portland, Ore., was next, with 73 LEED buildings, and Seattle was third, with 63. New York was seventh with 46, and Los Angeles ninth with 40. No city in Virginia made the list.

Research initiatives, such as Lumenhaus, Virginia Tech’s 2009 entry in the U.S. Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon, are powerful motivators that reveal our professional capacity to change the status quo. It’s ok, once again, to tap our inner “inventor” and reclaim our role as “master builder.” (By the way, Virginia Tech is one of only two U.S. universities invited to compete in the first Solar Decathlon Europe, which will take place in Madrid in June.)

I am delighted by the thinking and social consciousness of our young designers and their eagerness to challenge the rest of us. They are not afraid to ask, “What if.” I am encouraged as architects embrace the roles of other disciplines such as landscape architecture, interior design planning and engineering to present a holistic response to a project.

While the lessons of this economy have been brutal, we have learned to work more efficiently, use technology more effectively, and stretch our thinking to become more competitive. New urbanism is returning people to cities, and there is a little more talk about mass transit and a little less about roads.

Even more, I am moved beyond words when I read about architects who have channeled personal suffering or setback, such as layoffs, into an engine for change. As I was working on this piece, I came across a recent Architectural Record interview with Cameron Sinclair, who 10 years ago co-founded Architecture for Humanity. This organization has grown into an international network of 40,000 professionals that has been involved in projects that have benefitted 700,000 people throughout the world. Now his voice, and that of his organization, has the ear of the United Nations. In our own firm, our president and several architects from our community, have foregone personal vacations for opportunities to build water systems in remote villages of Guatemala and parts of Africa.

I still believe that the reason most of us got into this business is because we wanted to design great things and change the world. No doubt the next generation of architects will say the same thing. I think it’s possible to accomplish great design, great cities and solutions to some of society’s problems, yet still be accountable to our businesses, our employees, our families and communities. And yes, even make a profit.

Nicholas E. Vlattas, AIA, is the Chief Operations Officer for Hanbury Evans Wright Vlattas + Company.

Deborah Marquardt does public relations for Hanbury Evans. Her writing has appeared in national magazines.

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