Attitudes, Opinion, Perceptions

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Paul W. Welch, Jr., Hon. AIA

Throughout my career with the AIACC, I have been continually prompted by the need to enhance the public’s understanding and appreciation of architects and architecture. During many of my outreach efforts with state and local AIA components, member surveys prioritized this need more than governmental advocacy programming. Yet, early on, I often wondered why this was a priority especially when the title architect was held in such high esteem by society. What do architects really mean when they are so adamant about public outreach and awareness?

It seems that everyone, at one time in their lives, wanted to be an architect only to be distracted by the emerging realities of life. Hollywood is fascinated with a multitude of stories about architects and the buildings they produce.

The word and the title architect have powerful connotations. Its many definitions are so positive that other professions and industries often use the title to describe the services offered by their companies and their employees, many of which have little or no relationship to the design and construction industry. While we are all too familiar with the designations software architect and network architect, and, as annoying as misuse of this title might be to licensed architects, the word was chosen because of the positive visualization it creates. Assuming that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, are we not pleased with so much attention?

As one of the most highly respected professions, perhaps there is little room for improving the image of the architect, or to better appreciate the contributions made by the profession to the environs in which Americans work, live, and play. Besides, I don’t think anyone is fooled by misuse of the title. Licensed architects are members of a very small and distinct brother/sisterhood of professionals who are educated, trained, and tested to design the fragile interface between human habitation and the natural environment. Of the 313.9 million Americans, there are approximately 115,000 licensed and practicing architects. Yes, one can misuse the title, but the ruse certainly cannot sustain any follow-up conversation during social gatherings

Maybe, when we speak of the public, what we really mean are the clients who pay for the professional services of an architect. If this is true, are we speaking in code, simply to avoid affirming the relationship between a client’s understanding of design, and an architect’s perception of the value of their services and how the client values, or doesn’t value, these same services? I wonder if it is not our reticence in clearly defining our audience, and the value of the services we provide, that are foundational to some of the problems confronted by the profession in today’s marketplace. Is the signature of an architect important to a project simply because the work is not exempt from the practice act, therefore requiring the stamp and signature of a licensed individual? Or is it the contributions of a well-designed project to the bottom line that encourages the engagement of an architect? Unfortunately, I think many clients better understand the statutory requirement than the business case for a well-designed project.

This is not to suggest that the AIA should abandon efforts to educate the general public on the value of design and the importance of architecture in building neighborhoods and communities. However, it does suggest the AIA should focus its external communications on the clients of architecture, and less on educating the “users” of architecture.

For a moment, envision the consequences of a well-financed national campaign of targeted client messages, focusing on the “business case for design,” and how design influences project profitability: well-designed multiple family housing results in lower vacancy rates; well-planned neighborhoods and integrated transportation create livable communities; well-designed classrooms contribute to fewer behavioral challenges and higher test scores; and evidence-based design and health care results in healthier and safer hospitals.

In the words of (Winston Churchill) I like things to happen; and if they don’t happen, I like to make them happen. I suggest that it is the attitudes and perceptions of clients that we should be focusing on, and less on the attitudes and opinions of the general public.

What do you think? I look forward to your comments.

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Paul W. Welch Jr., Hon. AIA

Paul W. Welch Jr., Hon. AIA and Executive Vice President of the AIA California Council (AIACC), is the former interim Executive Vice President and CEO of the American Institute of Architects in Washington, D.C.

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