Thoughts from the AIA Convention in New Orleans

The AIA Convention this year was held in New Orleans, Louisiana. I’ve been to many other AIA conventions, but I’d never been to New Orleans, so I was looking forward to understanding what “the Big Easy” was all about. Coming from Los Angeles, where 15 minutes gives you accolades of longevity, it was wonderful to see buildings with history.

Touring the Vieux Carre (or “Old Square”) homes of the French quarter was fascinating. Homes built with heavy direct Spanish, French and the “new” American Federalist influences where beautiful, and had the spice of the back-story of Sicilian and Italian rivalries that ruled the streets for a time. One house is famous for hosting a dinner between an Italian family and the Sicilian run mob. The premise of the dinner was to smooth over the strife with the mob, and instead the family rose at the end of the meal and shot the Sicilians sitting at their table! There’s a mess to clean up!!

I note this story not just for the “spice” but also for the “spirit”. Many of the people I met coming from out of town wanted to get a sense of whether the City had recovered from Katrina. It appears that the residents and the city itself were proud of the fact that they had come back from one of the greatest catastrophes in the history of our nation. Come back, feeling relaxed and ready to play blues and jazz into the wee hours of the morning. It certainly made the next morning’s run shorter and harder.

From a professional level, there were many statements made to speak to the state of our profession and its interaction with the public. Lawrence Speck FAIA, who was named the recipient of the 2011 AIA/ACSA Topaz Medallion for Excellence in Architectural Education at the convention, had some insightful encouragements. He reminded us that no one can live any part of their lives without being involved in architecture. That said, he noted that our culture is sadly ignorant of architecture, and encouraged us to be advocates with our words and our work. To engage at any level we can, to be accessible with the bent to turn that ship around.

Throughout the week, there were many signs, stickers, and T-shirts encourage us to “be a New Orleanian wherever you are”, to consider our global connection locally. The “Big Easy” was not about everything being easy, but about living life despite the difficulties of the day.

Considering the state of our own economy in the once Golden State, and the impact that has had on our design and construction industry, I can’t help but reflect on the New Orleans’s mixed attitude of ease and tenacity. Like Katrina, the state of this economy feels like a focused punch in the mouth. We can’t control that. What we can control is our reaction to it. We can, if I can steal the phrase, “be a New Orleanian” where we stand: set our jaw and bring our solutions, our insights, our encouragements, our “spice” to schools, to chamber meetings, to clients offices. If the economy wants to stall, fine. But that won’t kill us. It might, in fact, make us stronger. Like the “make it right” homes in the lower 9th stand as new standard in response to the past disaster, I really look forward to see how we, as architects, respond in the remaking of our businesses and move to not just be part of the solution, but to lead the way.