Design Performance: A Practitioner’s Perspective

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Nearly a month ago, I began a new phase of my career as an architect. Joining the AIACC staff in Sacramento as Director of Design & Practice, I had no shoes to fill, other than that of a profession so broad, so challenging and challenged, yet ultimately so intellectually satisfying, that generation after generation of multi-gifted women and men are drawn to serve society in the creation of the built environment.

I was intrigued by the idea of a “dialogue between generations” – a theme of the recent AIA Los Angeles design conference – Design: Performance. Instead of selecting a theme for their annual design conference of “how to survive in a stagnant economy” or “let’s be risk-adverse in risky times” direction, the conference instead featured a broad discussion among professionals; , those adept with technology and comfortable with the likes of integrated project delivery and those questioning if these changes will lead us out of a job. And generations aren’t necessarily about age.

While technology was a subject addressed by many, the changes in the profession were far reaching. In fact, there probably has never been a generational change of the magnitude we are now experiencing. As a 1971 graduate of the UC Berkeley School of Architecture, I recall even that campus with one of the most advanced computer engineering departments of its time could only provide the capacity for computing space allocation by filling up a shoe box (more like a boot box) with punch cards. Using a Mayline, triangles, and fade-out grid Clearprint was state of the art. And great works were designed and built with such now-antiquated tools.

The first panel addressed “The Integrated City”, demonstrated by the use of technology to find venues, populations, items of desire, history. Why use the phone to call a restaurant when you can view the menu, the environs, the availability of a table for two in fifteen minutes on your cell phone? Want to find existing public facilities where free health clinics would most help low income residents? Google their locations and get information about census areas. One of the upshots for architecture with this “searchability”, is that many more people are exposed to images of buildings and their interiors, so not only does the destination have importance for the why you’re going there, but from the first inquiry, the venue becomes important, not an afterthought. Not only must that locavore hot spot have great food, but it’s got to be a great place to be seen.

“In the Neighborhood”, the second panel, was an eye-opener as to how we can disagree about just what a neighborhood is. And in the varying definitions given by the panelists, rarely was the character of the locale’s buildings or style noted. It seems a “neighborhood” is in one’s mind or a collection of minds. A “food service entrepreneur”, a young architecture school graduate from UCLA, provided the evidence of the importance of the connectivity of technology: when she opened a storefront, her food truck regulars found her immediately; they had always looked for her on the internet, but the hardest clientele for her to reach were those in the storefront’s physical neighborhood. Unless they happened by or casually searched the net, they didn’t know she was there, serving the best ice cream sandwiches even named after architects (“the Frank Behry”, the “Mintimalism”.)

During the lunch break I quickly walked the Dwell Magazine’s design expo, a spread of beautiful residential products and ideas geared for the general public, but I spotted a few innovative items agreeable to my taste with the clean lines and bright design promoted by the journal. Sitting next to an architect from Southern California over a salad, brought me back to the reality of practice in present-day California: talented, experienced architects are out of work, thankful for any small remodeling job that comes along or looking for work in someone else’s office, to eke out a living in this economy. He was not the only fellow professional in this situation, others at the conference were disheartened by the slow recovery, and one of the afternoon panelists in the session “Not Your Father’s Office” expressed that senior staff when laid off, were not waiting for the upswing; they are turning to other revenue streams, never to return to the profession, a loss of institutional memory and priceless experience.

The afternoon brought an interview with an architect/artist/educator whose energy and enthusiasm for technology was contagious, insightful, and a bit baffling: when is technology more than, and sometimes only, a tool? He did conclude that he is not “worried” about technology overtaking “design” but only about good and bad architecture, which (in his view) to be “good” must be humanistic and viewed more as a cultural institution and not as a profession and discipline. He and the moderator discussed technology with a backdrop of his dramatic, organic (but machined-surfaced) constructs. Challenging to follow in the presentation (as an architect), was how his design aesthetic may not be about the buildings, but instead, a representation of the fluidity of technology enabling architects to express what they can visualize. What is uncertain though is despite the technological ability to create these forms, architects would have extreme difficulty in documenting them for construction.

The final session “Not Your Father’s Office”, I reflected on the questions and comments which represented practice, academia, and the client’s world: how should architects be prepared for practice? What does a practice owe to its interns and the future of the profession? How is experience hard-won through the years transferred from those speaking in one media to those speaking in another? How is the profession’s future held in the balance based on this success or failure?

The client representative on the panel summed it up – he’s looking for

  • Architects who can bring ideas to his company, not just for shape and form, but for new uses and mixes of uses.
  • Fresh ideas which will put him ahead of the market, making money for the whole development team.

Others on the panel echoed this sentiment and encouraged architects to:

  • “Look for problems to solve and not wait for others to bring them to us”;
  • “Look at the dynamics of a situation: there’s a project in there!”
  • “Remember, people hire people (not firms); mentor your staff on this”;
  • “Recognize the power of youth. The architect’s skills of communication, synthesis, and spatial visualization can support the Millennial Generation in their quest to make the world a better place, and don’t get in their way because there are too many of them!”

Our profession should draw from this convergence of talent, commitment, and experience: reinvent yourself (it’s not a bad thing); draw inspiration from youth (we were all there once), and mentor by experience (it’s time to give back).

Kudos to the AIA Los Angeles Chapter for drawing together their members and guests as an opportunity to look forward and take advantage of the great tools we have to promote design and practice.

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Linda Derivi

A UC Berkeley graduate, she is President of the multi-discipline design firm Derivi Construction & Architecture, Inc., which she co-founded in 1979, based in Stockton, CA. She holds licenses as a contractor and as an architect, as well as being a certified interior designer. Recently appointed AIACC Director of Design & Practice, she brings with her not only a broad knowledge of practice issues, but also a great deal of energy and dedication to her work.

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  1. avatar
    Doug Wittnebel

    What a great article and wonderful comments. Appreciate the client insights too! Thanks..,

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