AIA Convention 2013: Classes

Drunk Bear don't feel so good

Drunk Bear don’t feel so good

The AIA convention is probably as well-attended as it is primarily because of all of the classes that are offered. Sure the Expo is impressive, the keynotes are inspiring, and the opportunity to network is unmatched by any other event, but the classes are really invaluable. Professional architects need a certain amount of “continuing education credits” (CECs) in order to maintain their license. As a lowly intern architect, I don’t “need” these classes per se, but I decided to take a deeper dive into them this year anyway just to see what it was all about.

I’m going to sound really negative about the classes and I don’t really mean to. I get the value of them, and I probably could have minimized my wasted time at these classes by reading the course descriptions and learning about the presenters. As it was, I read the zingy titles and picked out ones that sounded interesting and useful and pretty much got burned. That’s my bad, and I’ll own it.

That said, I really can’t wait to lay into “Teaching Architects to Teach”. Maybe I’m especially bitter because I had to choose between it and a class about designing small communities, another interest of mine lately fueled by my reading of “The Geography of Nowhere”. Maybe I’m angry at myself for not acting on my instinct to leave after enduring just three sentences of the presenter’s boring monotone voice. Maybe I was a fool to think that anyone, boring monotone or not, could ever successfully navigate the three-ringed labyrinth that is trying to teaching people how to teach students architecture. “Good architecture” is subjective, as is “good teaching”, so any discussion of how to teach to teach is bound to get pretty wonky. The class may very well have been doomed from the start, but the presenters didn’t do themselves any favors with the structure. There was a bizarre twenty minute stretch where different generations of architects were arbitrarily assigned generic traits and historic waypoints. Baby Boomers are family-oriented and lived through Vietnam. Millenials love to collaborate and grew up in a post-911 world. There was no mention of this part of the class ever again. As far as I can tell the only purpose was to create a platform for crotchety principals to stand on and whine about how their interns rely too much on newfangled “technology” and don’t know how to sketch anymore. The last half of the class involved us looking at projects and being invited to offer criticism based on minimal knowledge of the project and presentation. Since we were left to guess about what the student may or may not have said about their projects, there were a lot of exchanges that went something like this:

Me: “If the student said this, then I would ask them why they did that and that.”

Presenter: “What if the student had said this and this?”

Me: [silence]

After looking at three projects like this, it was revealed that they were preliminary sketches or unbuilt projects by people like Louis Kahn and Le Corbusier, two famous architects. If you haven’t tried yet, spoiler alert: it’s really difficult to criticize two of the greatest architectural thinkers ever. People spend years writing doctorate theses about it. Maybe not the best subject material for a ninety minute intro class, eh?

The upshot of this being the first class I took was that the rest of them had a pretty low bar to clear. Next was “Retail Design Around the World”, which I took because I do a lot of retail design these days. I don’t do any international work, but it was interesting to learn about how the process of working in another country is different. A lot of thought goes into analyzing local customs and considering what the culture will accept or reject. There were other interesting tidbits too. For example, American retailers like to have their stores open before Thanksgiving to take advantage of holiday shopping seasons. This matters less in other places where they don’t care about the pilgrims. I had a lot of those “huh” moments about things I hadn’t thought about before, but I didn’t learn anything I could use tomorrow. I felt the same way about a course I took called “Sustainability in Retail Architecture”. There were some good ideas discussed regarding sustainability, but both retailers they brought in (Kohl’s and TD Bank) deal in huge volumes and large, detached buildings. I do a lot of tenant fitouts (spaces that you would see in a mall), which is a completely different scale. I can’t really recommend a client install electric car charging stations or white roof material if we don’t really have a say in the parking or the roof. Oh well.

“Religion, Art and Architecture” was probably the best class I attended. I was expecting something of a round-table discussion about the intersection between those three, but instead three architects presented individual projects that dealt with them. This would have been great if each of these case studies was like, 10 minutes long, and then there was a half hour to discuss, but instead the case studies took up the whole hour. They were really interesting projects, though, so in that respect this class was surprisingly good. Designing a church or a mausoleum is something I’ve never done professionally or even in school, and it seems like it would be a fun challenge. The projects discussed were the Tirana Mosque by BIG, the Temple Beth Elohim by William Rawn Associates, and the Lakewood Cemetery Garden Mausoleum by HGA. Pictures below, click for links to the projects.

Tirana Mosque by BIG

Temple Beth Elohim by William Rawn Associates

Lakewood Cemetery Garden Mausoleum by HGA

I was originally going to roll coverage of the Expo floor into this post, but I’ve already gone on too long. Stay tuned.

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