Before attending the Urban Land Institute conference in Los Angeles in late October, I had high hopes for the organization’s agenda to get developers, architects, and planners out of their respective corners for some real dialogue at the same table. After all ULI just hired one of LA’s smartest urban thinkers, ex-planning director Gail Goldberg, as their LA director. And they promised to parse what’s gone right recently in Downtown LA through adaptive reuse, smart planning, and the creation of new mixed-use destinations, among other things.
I respect ULI and what it has achieved, including its consistent advocacy of sustainability, transit-oriented development, and affordable housing. But by the end of the conference, I was depressed to face the fact that ULI and big-time real estate developers don’t care enough about architecture. While a few sessions addressed the importance of design to solve real urban problems, it’s still more often considered the icing on the cake, a marketing tool, and not a significant factor.
At a Q&A panel featuring ULI directors and assorted real estate power brokers, I asked how they were promoting design as a tool for bringing value to developments. They looked at me like I was from another planet. Later, an architect from San Francisco told me he had volunteered for a ULI subcommittee for over a year but dropped it when he picked up a vibe that the developers on the committee really didn’t want to mix with the hired hands.
What better proof that architects need developers but developers, it seems, don’t think they need architects. Our job is to convince them otherwise. Our membership institutions, whether the AIA or someone else, need to develop data showing how good design can lower long-term costs, raise value, and enhance the developer’s image. They also need to reach out to groups like ULI and develop policies to force developers to take another look at their options.
Good design can solve problems, improve the public realm, and create a lasting legacy of value. Somehow architects have cut themselves off from the money people, as if developer types were bad company. Get over it! Take time to learn the developer lingo; mingle with the suits; figure out how to finesse the formula projects to make them better.
I saw only a handful of architects at ULI. This should change next time around. Not too long ago in Los Angeles powerful and talented firms like Pereira and Luckman, Wurdeman and Becket, A.C. Martin, and Gruen Associates and even smaller shops like Jones and Emmons and Palmer & Krisel were intimately tied-in with developers and politicians. Of course, firms still do work closely with power brokers, but not always the most talented. Design firms need to continue this legacy, not operate on the margins.
To borrow the language of Occupy Wall Street, architects are in service to the one percent, designing primarily for the richest institutions and clients. Why cede the rest of the jobs? It only leaves the profession vulnerable in bad times, as in right now. In the U.S. most structures don’t even require a registered architect to be completed. No wonder architects abroad are not only more respected but more solvent.
New efforts such as Gehry Technologies’ push to put architects at the lead of digital building management are helping architects seize control of the building process. But that is just part of it, especially until the cost of BIM software comes down. If we want to join the big boys, we have to take a seat at the table, not wait for it to be offered. We need to involve ourselves with work that has largely been off limits. We need to convince developers that we should and must be partners in the process. We need to play ball, as they say in the business world.