SAN ANTONIO — At a time when architecture and architects have become quite popularized, it was not surprising that the American Institute of Architects' national convention last week focused on a number of public-oriented issues.
Topics, such as urban planning and housing for the homeless, were explored by nearly 1,800 architects, no doubt, as a response to critical urban problems as well as taking advantage of the rebirth of the convention city of San Antonio.
Keynote speaker Brendon Gill, ardent enthusiast of architecture and historic preservation, cited the irony that architecture has become fashionable at a time when other professions, such as doctors and lawyers, are coming into disrepute. "Architects are all the rage . . . even to the point that one is expected at dinner parties to speak easily of contemporary icons such as Venturi and Gwathmey and Meier and Jahn," he said.
The irony does not end there, for Gill, an architecture writer for New Yorker magazine, said, "today is the worst possible time for architects to have to become conspicuous, because they are in a state of intellectual befuddlement unequaled at any moment in history. . . . Are not the childish allurements of Post-Modernism being seen for what they always were--a parody in the name of paying homage to a touchingly sincere past?"
San Antonio Turnaround
San Antonio Mayor Henry Cisneros bolstered the role of architects by charging them with the responsibility "to keep our cities strong by participating in civic life and the decision-making process that will shape our cities' future."
Credited with the turnaround of his native city, he fostered a framework for urban development. San Antonio has embarked on a "pro-active approach" in which preservation and urban renewal involve close interaction of public and private sectors.
Cisneros outlined guidelines for the next generation of development beyond the famous Riverwalk in the heart of the city, including tightening historic preservation ordinances, extending the city's waterways and green spaces, and finalizing an urban design manual that addresses planning aspects of street vistas and signage.
In a related urban design program, appropriately labeled San Antonio: The Entrepreneurial City, local professionals explained in-depth specific approaches to implement Cisneros' goals. The key to the city's growth has been the establishment of a special project division in the city manager's office which acts as a clearing house for all discussions with developers.
Work under way in downtown San Antonio includes Vista Verde, a 140-acre mixed-use project; the 90-acre HemisFair Plaza, new hotels adjacent to the Convention Center, and in an outlying area, the 450-acre Lincoln Heights mixed-use conversion of a cement plant and quarry.
The AIA's Housing Committee's focus on housing the homeless was not ignored. Louis Lundgren, of Lundgren Associates in St. Paul, Minn., chairman of the committee, explained that "we are trying to bring this issue to the forefront of the profession and the public, for today the problem has reached critical proportions.
"We want to make it known that it can be solved. Architects must take responsibility now, for they must accept some of the blame too. They have been involved in projects in which housing has been torn down to make way for new buildings, often displacing people."
"Since there has been a 95% cut in federal housing monies," William Church, a Portland architect designing in this area, said, "we must have interaction of everyone in the community. But it really comes down to local political will."
D. Blake Chambliss, of Chambliss Associates in Grand Junction and Denver, Colo., and chairman of the AIA's subcommittee on housing the homeless, said, "in fact, there may have to be a grass-roots movement to bring pressure on politicians in order to achieve reasonable goals."
Other than consciousness-raising, there are also specific actions being undertaken by the AIA, most recently contributing seed money to set up a Homeless Information Center in Washington, D.C., to be run by the National Urban Coalition, serving as a central resource for anyone in the country.
The AIA Housing Committee is also creating a team of experts who could be called in by any city government or community organization that needs help. The AIA has just published a book entitled, "The Search for Shelter" by Nora Richter Greer, which addresses issues of safe, dignified shelter, and focuses on various nationwide projects.
Case studies include Los Angeles' Union Rescue Mission addition, Transition House and Florence Hotel renovation in Skid Row, and San Diego's St. Vincent de Paul Center.
Ethics Code Reinstated
The most hotly-debated business topic--but one that affects the public's image of architects' professionalism--was the overwhelming passage to reinstate a mandatory code of ethics. The AIA in 1979 had responded to the U. S. Justice Department's antitrust rulings by axing its code, replacing it with a voluntary "Statement of Principles." These Justice Department rulings also greatly affected the professions of doctors, lawyers, accountants and engineers.
The new code sets forth the architects' obligations to clients, and provides for a forum for redress by unhappy clients.
The convention was not without humor, when there was a resolution put forth to define the profession's goals and develop a strategy for their implementation by the year 2000. Upon discovering that only $7,500 was budgeted, Brent Davis of Tucson asked, "How much vision can you buy for $7,500?" The resolution passed, nevertheless.