On December 10, Dan Hart was formally inaugurated as the 98th president of the American Institute of Architects (AIA). In honor of the occasion, AN editor in chief Aaron Seward struck up a correspondence via email with the Texas native to discuss the AIA’s priorities in the coming years and Hart’s favorite work of architecture. That conversation follows and has been lightly condensed for clarity.
Aaron Seward: Congratulations on the presidency, Dan. You mentioned that the AIA is moving from “aspiration to agency on our core dual strategies of addressing climate and justice through the built environment.” Could you elaborate on how you see climate and justice today as they relate to the built environment? What are the issues exactly that need addressing? How can the AIA help?
Dan Hart: You’ve rightly picked up on our top line goals of addressing climate and equity and justice.
The built environment is estimated to contribute more than 40 percent of all carbon emissions. And we know that buildings can play a significant role in offering spaces that are equitable for all to enjoy.
Architects have a tremendous opportunity to address these challenges. Likewise, AIA has a huge role to play in catalyzing the profession and our communities toward best practices in design and fair policies. We’ve deployed a number of tools to do that, including our Climate Action Plan, a revamped Framework for Design Excellence, our Equity Framework, AIA’s Policy Platform, and AIA’s Guides for Equitable Practice. The guides are a tremendous resource for everyone in the profession because it is research-based, academically grounded, and practically oriented.
Through resources like these, we’re equipping architects to design buildings and communities that adapt to the evolving challenge of climate change. We’re also working to lead meaningful change and contribute to climate solutions in partnership with our global community. For example, AIA for the first time sent a delegation of architects to the UN’s COP26 as a non-governmental organization observer. The AIA’s Board of Directors has also affirmed its commitment to COP engagement through 2025.
Our Equity Framework similarly has us acting and looking to issues within AIA—as a membership society, as an employer, and as a profession—and the profession, more generally.
I’m proud of the AIA’s Guides for Equitable Practice, which is a series of research-based resources that are academically grounded, but practically oriented resources to use within firms and organizations. We will be issuing two supplements to the guides in early 2022 with one addressing justice in the built environment, and another on higher education in collaboration with the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture (ACSA).
These are only a few of the topline items that AIA is providing to assist architects in their efforts to be more equitable, sustainable, and resilient.
I would encourage members to also explore other resources available to them, including the Architects Foundation, which offers a portfolio of diversity-centric scholarships for students and emerging professionals, as well as AIA’s Women’s Leadership Summit, and Next to Lead initiatives.
The story these days is that we’re living in a politically polarized time. Not everyone agrees on what is driving climate change or how to stop it, and not everyone agrees on what issues of justice need addressing, even among members of the AIA. What would you say to architects who feel alienated by what they see as the AIA’s leftward turn?
It is fundamentally a question of relevance, and we are guided with a clear understanding and commitment to our values. I have been involved with AIA and practiced as an architect for 30 years. What I have learned is that architects are a tremendous resource for their communities. We are uniquely qualified to provide solutions to the greatest challenges facing society. I think we’re most effective as a profession when we’re working collectively toward that end.
That’s exactly what we did as the COVID-19 crisis unfolded. Our board and staff went immediately into action, providing services, knowledge, and tools to help organizations and communities with the challenges we faced. I think that work in 2020 will be remembered as one of AIA’s finest moments. We were relevant because we engaged where society needed us most.
The motivation to move the needle on climate action, equity, and justice are a part of our commitment as architects to protect the health, safety, and well-being of society through the built environment. That is our most fundamental charge. It is our social contract.
A great example of what I’m referring to is our Communities by Design program, the AIA has brought architects and other professionals together to work with hundreds of communities on these kinds of issues, from inner city neighborhoods in the U.S. to Rio de Janeiro.
The built environment is crucial to all people, all communities, regardless of political leanings. And therefore, of all the issues we face in this country in this moment, infrastructure (both physical and social) is surely one of the most non-partisan. In fact, AIA successfully advocated to Congress that any infrastructure bill needs to include buildings. This was not the case for federal infrastructure legislation in the past. Through the enactment of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework (BIF) bill and the future passage of the Build Back Better Act (BBBA), AIA has made great progress in ensuring that buildings are central in these investment and efficiency conversations. Architects are in a position to draw people together through what is best for all of us. I am interested in AIA leveraging that position.
The 2022 AIA national convention will be in Chicago, which is just wrapping up its fourth architecture biennial: The Available City, curated by David Brooks. That focused quite closely on justice issues in the built environment by actually proposing a methodology of pairing architects with local community groups to revive disused lots in underserved black and brown neighborhoods. Did you see the show, and, if so, what did you think of it? Will the AIA convention make any tie-ins with the biennial programming?
AIA’s planning and preparations for its national conference in Chicago, A’22, are still in progress.
I’ve not been able to see or participate in the Chicago biennial yet. From what I’ve read and heard about the intentions, though, this is an extraordinarily relevant and productive approach to addressing justice in the built environment. We do our best work when we are empathetic and listen well. Addressing justice in the built environment necessarily involves facilitation (rather than imposition) in partnership—ideally with and by architects from the community.
Finally, I know it’s hard to pick favorites, but do you have a favorite architectural project, built or speculative? A top three? What is it that you like about them?
I grew up in a small, rural farming community in Texas, where the most significant buildings were grain silos (Le Corbusier’s skyscrapers of the prairie). But my earliest trek to see a building—on a break during architecture school—made a huge impression. It is still my favorite: Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth. I was a student in both architecture and engineering, and I marveled at those cycloid vaults.
They are structure and enclosure, and at the same time, somehow warm and ethereal. They’re light even though they are massive, raw concrete elements. The play of solid and light is magical. The sound of water spiling serenely over the weir edges of the fountains and the crunch of the gravel underfoot passing through the yaupon grove in the entry court are fitting preludes to the warmth of the light that envelops you as you enter. You can probably hear the enthusiasm I still have for it. I have made the same pilgrimage many, many times since. That entry sequence into the building still gives me chills.