Sleepless in the Sonoran Oct23

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Sleepless in the Sonoran

Ventana Canyon, where we stayed for 4 days/nights

A few weeks ago, we headed south to the amazing Sonoran desert at the sprawling edges of Tucson, AZ, excited and honored to represent UW at this year’s AIA Leadership Institute.  This was the fifth year of the Institute, which was started by the Northwest and Pacific Region (NWPR) AIA and originally included all seven schools of architecture in this region. This year, the architecture schools of the Mountain West Region (MWR) AIA were included as well, making for a more dynamic conference.  Expansion of the Leadership Institute has been a key priority in past years and resulted in the event being held in conjunction with the MWR NWPR Joint Regional Conference.  This allowed us the opportunity to meet and share ideas on leadership in architecture with fellow students and faculty from the Universities of Arizona, Arizona State, Hawai’i, Montana, Portland State, UNLV, Utah, and Washington State.

What is Leadership?  This is a question we hoped to answer at this conference, and though we left with a better understanding, we still believe it is a concept which requires experience and time to fully comprehend.  We learned that leadership is not necessarily a tangible thing, or even a distinct set of core values.  Throughout our time in Tucson, however, we focused on three categories which are easier to discuss concretely and understand as part of what it means to be a strong leader.

The first concept is Advocacy, which was explained most eloquently as the process of lobbying for a cause, client, or organization: as in architects advocating for the value of our profession in a time where this value is often in question.  In other words, we must advocate for our own survival.  This point was driven home by humanitarian architect Eric Cesal, head of Architecture for Humanity’s Haiti office, author of Down Detour Road, and keynote speaker for the conference.  Before his address to the AIA, he gave the Leadership Institute a private lecture.  Basically, he pointed out why we, as architects, have been responsible for the marginalization of our profession based on obvious disconnects between architectural education and professional practice.  He urged us to recognize the inherent flaw in celebrating architects, not architecture and to embrace the power of collective genius. None of us is as smart as all of us.

Engagement involves the acts of inclusion, relating to others, and organizing.  As facilitators, architects have the ability to relate, listen, provide concepts and translate between varied parties.  With vision, we can help others see the value in sharing ideas, time, and resources.  Brad Lancaster, a Tucson rainwater guru and all-around cool guy, presented his experiences of engaging his neighbors to affect positive change within his community.  You might think of Brad as a community organizer, and while he certainly thinks and acts like a designer, he was never formally trained.  Some of the exciting projects Brad helped to initiate in his neighborhood include roadside storm water infrastructure (LID for all you landscape dual majors!) and an annual tree planting day.  Eventually his organization, Desert Harvesters, began focusing on edible and medicinal plants, including the ancient practice of harvesting and milling mesquite seeds into flour, which led to another event, the Annual Mesquite Pancake and Waffle breakfast.  His online casino argument for engagement was enticing, leaving us with his exuberant mantra: “discuss, discuss, but then you must have JOY, JOY, JOY!” In other words, food and fiestas are the best way to bring people together. Everybody loves a celebration.

Agency takes the idea of collective genius as a way to strengthen our design process and the view of our profession in society.  Through professional organizations such as the AIA, the notions of vision, inspiration, and collaboration can affect change by being scalable, where power in numbers allows appropriate action and response to specific situations.

Agency is also about taking action. It is the ways of empowering yourself and others to act in a way that effects powerful change. It involves collaboration, vision, and – most importantly – follow-through. This was certainly the most ethereal and vague of the three concepts, but in some ways holds the most potential for impact.

Aaron and Mazohra presenting our project proposal to the AIA joint Conference

Based on lectures and group discussion centered on these three concepts, each school developed a leadership project and refined their scheme throughout the conference. Repeated proposal presentations helped us refine our skills of Advocacy, inviting others to Engage with the proposals and become Agents in their realization. Our time at the Leadership Institute culminated in a presentation to the entire AIA conference, where we pitched our projects one last time. This was a powerful experience and a great finale to a challenging and exciting few days. The cherry on top was the announcement of the inaugural AIA Pacific Region Student awards, where UW cleaned up, walking away with four of seven awards, including all three Merit Awards and one of two Honor Awards!

Aaron, Mazohra and award recipient Kevin Zhang with UW’s student design Awards

The rest of the conference was spent attending lectures, a trade show, and panel discussions. Different presenters spoke on integrated practices, design/build programs, and the increasing globalization of the profession. The closing speaker was Craig Dykers, founding partner in Snohetta Architects, who was the most engaging, hilarious and exciting architect I have ever heard speak!  On the opening day of his firm’s Oslo Opera House, he recounted nervously checking news sites and blogs, only to find headlines reading that a couple had been caught copulating on the roof.  His response was one of relief. In his own words, this was likely the best compliment an architect could ever receive!  If you are unfamiliar with Snohetta’s work, we suggest that you spend some time getting yourself up to speed.

View of one of the pools, Taliesin West

To wrap up our time in the desert, we took part in one last AIA event: a tour of Taliesin West and Cosanti. Piled into a tour bus, watching the cactus fly by, we couldn’t believe how lucky we were to experience this amazing conference and interact with such dynamic individuals from all over the West. Then, we got off the bus and learned how lucky we really were. Our tour of Taliesin, interesting, but generic, was hijacked by one of the Taliesin students, who had also been at the Leadership Institute. He took us on a private tour, showing us the library, shop, and the student shelters that many don’t get the chance to see. It was an unforgettable experience, only topped by another stroke of luck at Cosanti. Just as we were leaving for the day, Paolo Soleri himself, alive and designing at 93, came down to speak with us. He talked about changing cityscapes, his relationship with Frank Lloyd Wright, and the importance of creativity.

Student built shelter at Taliesin West

Paolo Soleri showing us some of his collage art from the day.

In conclusion, we would like to reiterate what an honor it was to represent the UW architecture department at this year’s AIA Leadership Institute.  We would like to send a special thanks to Dave Miller, Shanna Sukol, Karen Helland, and last year’s participants, Davis Hammer and Kate Murphy.  We believe that our experiences of being Sleepless in the Sonoran positively impacted our design thinking and process, and allowed us to make professional connections at the mentor and colleague levels.  Finally, in a time when continuous dynamics create uncertainties in the world, this opportunity gave us hope for the future of our profession, with the understanding that we must adapt to these situations by being malleable and dynamic ourselves.

Written by Aaron Allan and  Mazohra Thami

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