Marisa Nemcik, AIA NCARB, an architect in our Boston office, and Tim Walser, an architect in our Chicago office, recently won a sponsorship to attend the 2018 AIA Conference on Architecture, held this year in New York City under the banner theme: “Blueprint for Better Cities.” They share their findings here:

As the two lucky applicants selected, we were flown from our Boston and Chicago offices to New York for the AIA conference, a four-day event that had us walking the High Line, lunching with CannonDesign executive design director David Polzin and CEO Brad Lukanic, dodging Manhattan traffic and, of course, enjoying the myriad seminars and learning sessions offered. We found that despite our different interests, our takeaways from the experience were both rooted in a determination to push our field further toward design that engages everyone.

Marisa’s Reflections

As designers, we are uniquely equipped to not only create beautiful and well thought-out spaces but to positively affect the people we design for. When beginning to shape the identity of our cities, this power of effect is something that requires great care in connecting authentically to the communities in place. Our interventions should look to develop equity, enhance culture, and support growth through design.

Part of ensuring that we respect the significance of these communities and cultures is to endorse the representation of distinct voices in our profession. The composition of our cities and society is a diverse mix of race, gender, culture, experience, and socio-economic backgrounds – so why is a profession so rooted in people deeply misrepresentative of the communities which we serve?

This was a question consistently brought up at this year’s conference – the larger conversation about the future of our profession. We need this insertion of unique perspective, background and experience to help reinvigorate our profession. This was evident in the panel discussions, lectures and workshops surrounding the equity and diversity calls-to-action we have seen over the past few years.

One specific workshop – “Equity by Design Hackathon,” led by co-chairs Rosa Sheng and Lilian Aperin – focused not only on the education and discussion about this topic, but also solicited actionable response from a group that accurately embodied a true cross-section of what our society looks like. The proposals explored the activation of underutilized space in our communities, mediating implicit bias in interviews, identifying mentorship connections to help with development, and a standardized way to refocus the idea of compensation to be aligned to your individual values. We focused on exploring how our differences can bring us together in developing systems for change.

In addition to focusing on the individual, there was a refreshing spotlight on social equity. Through case studies and anecdotes, professionals showed how it is possible to “do well by doing good.” In his keynote, David Adjaye addressed how to confront stereotypes around affordable housing. Through his Sugar Hill Development project, he is reflective and supportive of the existing community while providing an elevated level of design and in turn dignity for its residents. In roundtables on social impact on cities, designer Katherine Darnstadt, Latent Design in Chicago, talked about finding synergies in existing city initiatives and client needs to provide funding and capital to create projects that are transformational to areas in the Southside.

Source: Architizer

In her talk, Gabriella Gómez-Mont, founder and director of Laboratorio para la Ciudad in Mexico City, discussed how her team of designers helped develop a platform that encourages productive discussion and debate between the city and its citizens. They presented projects, research and initiatives that put people at the forefront, while still employing well thought out design.

Returning to the office I am encouraged to see how we have been addressing these pertinent topics in our attention to office culture and the redefined commitment to embody a deep social conscience. Through structured initiatives like CannonDesign’s Women’s Forum and our firm’s Diversity + Inclusion Council, to casual discussions and roundtables, we are asserting the importance of diversity, equity and inclusion. We are sharing, supporting and encouraging one another, which is empowering to see and hear, but still struggle with getting everyone involved in these discussions (…where are all the men? cough, cough…).

Likewise, it has been great to see how the firm is valuing the voices of its next generations through the NEXT Council initiatives, as well as encouraging engagement with our SFMO local communities. Through the relaunch of Open Hand Studio, projects with the Neighborhood Design Center in Baltimore, Resilient Design Workshops with the New England Aquarium in Boston, and connecting with the Chicago Design Museum through Chicago’s PULSE program (and many more!), we’re exhibiting a commitment to not only good design, but social engagement. Paired with our commitment to excellence and innovation in design, this investment in our people, culture, and communities, creates a powerful force in the design community.

Tim’s Reflections

This decade quietly achieved a landmark in human development; with more than half the global population now inhabiting cities, the world has entered a new paradigm of high-velocity urbanization. By 2050, that amount will increase to 75 percent, with cities struggling to keep pace. While congregating a highly skilled workforce has led to technological, medical and educational developments never before seen, the fallout has been increasingly divided societies that struggle with access to engaging, resilient, and equitable resources.

The urgency of these issues is palpable, and the location and topic of this year’s conference address just that. My working background is in business and urban design. As I found when attending the conference, such seemingly disparate disciplines actually work together to create projects that address these very issues.

One seminar – “Inventing & Reinventing Cities” – brought together Rick Bell, director at NYC Department of Design and Construction, and Michele Zaoui, advisor on architecture and public space to the mayor of Paris. They discussed strategies implemented in their cities to mitigate growth in population and inequality, like the temporary refugee housing that uses innovative inflatable structures and repurposed warehouses, with permanent housing in economically stable neighborhoods that engages the community with volunteer opportunities. Coupled with this effort is the reclamation of miles of former streets along the River Seine. While New York has lead similar efforts with the development of the High Line and famously closing off traffic along Broadway in Times Square, the city seems to trail Paris in its overall progress, leaving much room for improvement.

The keynote address was held in Radio City Music Hall. Not being especially interested in the Rockettes, it’s a space I never thought I’d get to experience, let alone to hear from BIG partner and CEO Sheela Søgaard. As someone trained in business and leading an architecture firm, her ideas synthesized the two disciplines as a way to recognize the value of our work. She pointed out the paradigm that our field tends to bill based on the number of hours we’ve put in, instead of the ideas and content we’ve produced. Some architects seem to pride themselves on being poorly business-minded, as if it somehow makes them better designers. If we truly value our contributions to the world around us, and believe our drive toward equitable, resilient communities is important, we need to have the conviction to express that value to the people we work with.

It quickly became evident that the most pertinent issues discussed at the conference are already being undertaken at CannonDesign. One of my favorite examples is our work on the new Malcolm X College in Chicago. A city college, the two-year institution’s subsidized tuition and open admission policy provides students across Chicago access to education. The college offers the largest selection of health science degrees in the county, adding much-needed healthcare professionals to our community. CannonDesigners integrated themselves with the Malcolm X community to develop a new facility that reinforced the importance of the program while meeting the very specific needs of all stakeholders.

Our work addresses the acute issues many of today’s cities face: the need for healthy, accessible and well-planned healthcare, education and workplace facilities. As leaders in the field, we should be proud of the role we play in making great cities, and we should continue to push one another and ourselves toward a truly equitable and resilient future.