Thousands of architects are descending upon the city of Chicago this week for the American Institute of Architects Convention, the biggest gathering of architects and design professionals in the country. This year's conference kicked off Thursday with keynote speeches from Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel; Jeanne Gang, founder of Chicago-based Studio Gang Architects and a MacArthur genius grant recipient; and Theaster Gates, an artist and urban planner who founded Rebuild Foundation, a neighborhood revitalization nonprofit.
Emanuel touted the potential of architecture to transform cities (and plugged his new plans to launch an architecture biennial in Chicago), while Gates discussed some of his artistic projects, like refurbishing a historic German hotel. Gang urged architects to consider design in the context of larger global issues like climate change and urbanization.
After starting off with a pump-up video reminding a room full of architects how awesome and important architecture is, Stephen Chung, host of PBS architecture show Cool Space appeared on stage. "We’ve assembled here today to reconsider and reinforce our goals . . . to get back to a time when you considered architecture a calling, not just a job," he said.
AIA President Helene Combs Dreiling introduces Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, whom she describes as "an enthusiastic supporter of continued architectural innovation." Earlier this week, he announced the launch of a new Chicago architecture biennial.
"The biannual meeting in the city of Chicago for architecture will be about thinking of the modern city," Emanuel said. (And of course, bringing in tourist dollars: "Please walk out of here and go spend some money," he jokes.)
"The idea of rethinking your space is essential for a city today," Emanuel said. "People are now migrating back to cities. We are once again at the center of rethinking livable, sustainable, and beautiful cities—not just downtown, because we have an incredible downtown . . . but also what happens in our neighborhoods."
"We as a city are embracing . . . how you actually use the work of architects, planners, to think of the new American city," he said.
He then touched on some of the city's transportation efforts, announcing that every one of the new stations on the city's Red Line—the southern portion of Chicago's busiest metro rail line completely shut down as part of reconstruction efforts last year—would include artwork telling the story of that neighborhood, including work by Theaster Gates at the 95th Street station. "We used to have a system in Chicago where people by bike went faster than by train," Emanuel said. (This was certainly my experience commuting in Chicago only a few years ago.) The trains on the refurbished Red Line can travel up to 55 miles per hour. Putting the "moderately rapid" in "rapid transit."
Ivenue Love-Stanley, winner of the 2014 AIA Witney M Young Jr. Award, gave an inspiring speech about her origins in the segregated school system of Meridian, Mississippi. She was the first African-American woman to get licensed as an architect in the Southeast. "I want to simply ask you to search your souls and ask the question: Is this profession what you really want it to be?" she says. She urges the crowd (though women aren't totally absent from the room, there are a whole heck of a lot of white dudes) to work to improve the enrollment numbers of women and minorities in architecture schools as well as firms.
"These improvements are long overdue," she says. "Although women make up an increasingly large percentage in the country’s schools of architecture, the number of female professionals who enter the profession pales by comparison. We stand to lose an entire generation if we do not act fast."
"In my artistic practice a big part of it is reimagining how spaces are activated," Gates said.
He discussed his project Huguenot House, a former drug house Gates restored in Kassel, Germany. "Architecture was a raw material for me," he said. "I would start to imagine policy as form. I would start to imagine a city as a potential landscape. How could we tweak [architecture] or hack it or make its will subject to what we believe in?"
"My amateur tactics—while they may not be transformative at a city scale—these [tactics] are the baby steps that lead to policy innovation," he said, noting that artists "have permission to not always hyper-professionalize." Artists doing architectural work don't have to follow the rules.
Gang introduced her talk as "Purpose Is Process." She puts it another way: "Does architecture create social change? Or is it social change that determines architectural space?"
She introduced the framework she created for Northerly Island, a former lakefront airport that has been turned into a public park (using somewhat controversial tactics on the part of then-mayor Richard M. Daley).
"What’s really great is it’s actually under construction—we thought it was going to take 50 years," she said. "Right now it is the largest urban aquatic restoration project going on in the country."
"The radical reinvention of the island speaks to the fact that architecture's not just a blank canvas," she says. "I'd argue that social change is really reliant on spatial change to achieve its real potential."
Gang spoke to her commitment to environmental issues. "For us, it's really a process of aligning our design work with these larger urban issues" like mass urbanization and climate change. "While the city [of Chicago] focuses on high design, architecture, landscape architecture—it's really trying to be a global city—there's still a need to come to grips with this pollution and our urban industrial legacy which we have inherited, which is most of the time affecting the people who are most economically disadvantaged," she said.