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AIA Unit Faces Double Challenge : Needs More Usefulness to Members, Better Public Profile

January 10, 1988|LEON WHITESON | Whiteson is a Los Angeles-based design writer

Each year the Los Angeles chapter of the American Institute of Architects sponsors a Real Problems contest for architectural students.

With the installation of a new board of directors next Saturday, the LA/AIA faces some real problems of its own.

The local chapter's challenges concern both its inward and outward posture. Internally, the LA/AIA needs to make itself more useful to its 1,800 members and to attract new blood. Externally, it needs to raise the public profile of architects as vital participants in the evolution of Los Angeles.

"The chapter must clarify its role as, on the one hand, a professional organization concerned with promoting its members' interests, and its contribution to the wider community," says incoming LA/AIA President Robert Allen Reed.

"In the past, we've often seemed to be pulled in both directions at once, as if these roles were opposed. In my view, they are one and the same.

"The status of architects will rise if we can demonstrate our relevance to the city, particularly now, when our very livelihood depends on how the current struggle between the growth and anti-growth forces is resolved."

Reed sets three main agendas for the LA/AIA in 1988.

He would like the chapter to "increase membership through improved services and through reaching out to those not now involved." He wants to get the chapter to apply its collective expertise to issues like housing the homeless. And he wants to "create more public visibility for architects and architecture in the city."

Membership Losses

As an experienced manager of large and complex construction projects, including the downtown Figueroa Plaza office towers, Reed is aware of the problems he faces in achieving these aims in his year in office.

"In 1986 we lost members to the new chapter in the (San Fernando) Valley," he said in an interview published in L.A. Architect, the chapter's house organ. "We also came to recognize that there are many minority architects who are prominent contributing professionals, yet are not members of the chapter."

Saying that architects are among the lowest paid of all professionals, Reed believes the LA/AIA has "a responsibility to communicate what we stand for as an association."

It won't be easy. Despite the appointment of a vigorous new executive director, Victoria Crayne, and the hiring of a public relations counselor, Vicki Beck of Carl Terzian Associates, the profession in general, and the AIA in particular, confront a wall of prejudice and ignorance in presenting their case to the community.

Virtues Left Unspoken

The public ignorance of an architect's real function as a designer and manager of projects large and small is largely due to the profession's failure to promulgate its virtues. The public prejudice is often deserved.

"In Los Angeles, the physical environment contains both the evocation of man's highest ideals and his basest instincts," writes John Kaliski, chairman of the LA/AIA Urban Design Committee.

"Driving around and living here, it is easy to develop the impression that the latter have taken precedence over the former. Unfortunately, architects are perceived to be, and often are, the handmaidens of a process which ignores common sense in favor of common greed."

In other words: whose side are architects on? On the side of the "greedy" developer, or that of the homeowner threatened by high-rises? Is the profession only concerned to serve the interests of the narrow elite who are its clients?

Poorly Publicized

The general ambivalence towards architects is reinforced by the failure of their professional organs to speak up clearly on major public issues.

The LA/AIA's response on recent controversies such as Proposition U, the slow-growth initiative, and the design of the Central Library expansion has either been muffled or poorly publicized.

In fact, when the chapter does try to reach a wider audience, as in its 1986 LA2000 Prize, its presentation is often amateurish. As a whole, the LA/AIA doesn't seem to know how to translate its intentions into a language others might like to hear.

The chapter does not seem to attract some of L.A.'s more innovative designers. One searches in vain through its member's directory for such avant-garde designers as Thom Mayne or Fred Fisher.

Winners Not Members

Several of the chapter's 1987 annual design award winners were not members of the AIA. Many members wonder whether the $400 annual fee is really worth the money. LA/AIA professional practice spokesman Adrian Cohen admits that "as a whole, our objectives are confused and poorly formulated.

"To put it bluntly, we need to get our act together if we want to get respect, inside the chapter, and beyond."

Executive director Crayne gently points to the difficulty of "getting such a diverse body of professionals to set a coherent direction, and then pursue it.

"But we can formulate our objectives better than we have, and decide where to focus our energies. If we want to improve the public perception of architects, we must clarify our intentions, and follow through."

Subway Station Top

The chapter's Real Problems topic this year is the design of a mixed-use project above the Wilshire/Alvarado Metro Rail station near MacArthur Park.

The intent is "to explore the social and architectural impact that a Metro Rail station may have on its surrounding environment, and to elicit creative alternatives to the standard practices of commercial development."

A worthy notion, but will the ideas be relevant to a wider public? And will the chapter display the results in a prominent place? These questions go to the heart of the LA/AIA's earnest desire to "create more public visibility for architects and architecture in the city."

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