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Sunday, 18 August 2013 22:00

AIA Grand Rapids eyes realignment, becoming stronger voice for good architecture

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Architect Brian Swem, the current president of the American Institute of Architects Grand Rapids, wants to see the local organization change to be more vocal about what constitutes good design in the community. The local conversations come as the national AIA group discussed its own transformation at a recent leadership conference attended by Swem. He’d like both groups to prioritize relevance and advancing the profession. Architect Brian Swem, the current president of the American Institute of Architects Grand Rapids, wants to see the local organization change to be more vocal about what constitutes good design in the community. The local conversations come as the national AIA group discussed its own transformation at a recent leadership conference attended by Swem. He’d like both groups to prioritize relevance and advancing the profession. PHOTO: ELIJAH BRUMBACK

GRAND RAPIDS — As the national professional organization for architects discusses ways it can become more relevant, the local chapter is also searching for a way to become the go-to resource for the profession in West Michigan.

The current president of the local American Institute of Architects Grand Rapids would like to see the group create a stronger voice to support good projects and point out the bad.

“We need to stand up for the profession,” said Brian Swem, president of the AIA Grand Rapids chapter and architect at Lott3Metz Architecture LLC.

Rather than have the professional organization sit on its hands, Swem wants to see the chapter become more vocal about what constitutes good design and set the bar for practicing architects in the region.

“When a project shows up that isn’t driven by sustainability or doesn’t fit within the community, the AIA should stand up and say, ‘This is not appropriate,’” Swem said. “We wouldn’t be out condemning projects, but the concerns … would be rooted in a language that already exists, like master planning and zoning.”

As a result, AIA Grand Rapids could alienate some members who would rather keep the status quo, Swem said. On the other hand, he said AIA would be more visible and available to help various local government boards and commissions in asking the right questions about projects, he said.

“That way, we’re becoming a resource again,” Swem said. “The only way to do that is to go out there and start advocating for good architecture. That doesn’t mean everything has to be high design, it just means advocating for what is appropriate.”

The goal in the end is bringing the practice of architecture to the fore rather than raising up individual firms or architects.

The local conversations come after the national American Institute of Architects organization held its annual Grassroots Leadership and Legislative Conference in June. At the event, board members announced the organization was diving into a new repositioning effort led by LaPlaca Cohen, an international branding and marketing firm, and Pentagram, the world’s largest design consultancy.

While AIA is the largest, most visible advocacy organization for the architectural profession, it struggles to keep a relevancy that is focused on supporting the profession, Swem said.

Swem said at the national level, AIA is a mile wide and an inch deep with well over 300 programs, but it has paid lackluster attention to public awareness and government advocacy, which should be two of the main drivers for the organization to exist. Part of the problem stems from the organization’s concentration on architects as individuals and not advancing the profession as a whole, he said.

Speaking to the reorganization of the national association, Swem said many members are jaded because they don’t believe the organization is willing to change.

“One of the first things we were shown at the conference was this list of (how) AIA had gone through some kind of repositioning, yet nothing has really changed,” he said.

This is especially the case in terms of programming at both the national and local levels, he said. The requirement that the local affiliates offer what are at times outdated programs stands in the way of the local chapter becoming more relevant, he said.

Given this, Swem wants to push the local chapter toward the goal of becoming a community resource that supports good, appropriate architecture instead of an organization whose constant concern is bolstering membership and improving the budget.

With AIA national’s struggle to win more awareness for the profession and to put the industry in a position where legislators and others start approaching the organization more regularly, Swem sees room for the local chapter of AIA to get more active in the discussion of design within the community.

Also at issue is the national organization’s cumbersome governance structure, Swem said.

“AIA says it has to change from the bottom up, but from where I’m standing, how do you get 60 people to agree to change direction?” he said, referring to the size of the national board. “With the local chapter, when it comes to programming, I’d rather do one really good thing than a dozen mediocre things. The problem is that all the programs currently exist because someone likes them, so you’re already stepping on toes.”

He thinks the national organization should pare down its programming to a core set of issues and reduce the national board members from 60 to a headcount more conducive to efficient decision-making.

“If AIA national is going to effect positive change among the profession and themselves, they have to be willing to make waves and make the hard decisions,” Swem said. “And it’s not like we don’t have the same problem locally. I don’t know if you can be relevant and not make waves.”

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