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Future of Architecture Focus of AIA Convention in Philly

Rem’s keynote, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and more highlights from the big event last week

Every spring, thousands of architects from across the country and around the globe gather together at the annual American Institute of Architects convention. Last week, the AIA convened in Philadelphia, filling the Pennsylvania Convention Center with an army of designers representing the full diversity of the architectural field. For four days, the Market East neighborhood seemed a bit under-rested and over-caffeinated as more than 20,000 conventioneers took advantage of programs, tours, and parties. With more than 500 different activities between Wednesday and Saturday to choose from, there was no shortage of things to keep attendees occupied.

Here are seven highlights from the event:

Architecture of the Everyday

AIA National President Russell Davidson, FAIA, addressed a room of more than 8,000 architects to open the convention. In his remarks, he noted that, "Architecture matters every day, and everyday architecture matters," bringing to the forefront the importance of not just high design, but design of the environment that shapes everyone’s daily actions.

Fresh Air Host Talks With Veep

Also on the first morning of the convention, NPR host Terry Gross sat down with actress Julia Louis-Dreyfus to talk about themes related to the conference. A last-minute stand-in for Kevin Spacey, who canceled due to scheduling conflictsAIA president Russell Davidson quipped, "I had visions of pushing someone off a subway train,” in reference to House of CardsLouis-Dreyfus covered a range of light-hearted topics, including her favorite creative profanities from Veep. offering an entertaining morning diversion before the start of more cerebral seminars. While the conversation trended away from architecture, she did offer insights into her experiences working to design a sustainable home in Los Angeles with architect Marmol Radziner, waxing on the details that keep her up at night, noting that, "it's scary to build a house, but it's also thrilling."

Rem Talks Future of Architecture

The closing keynote of the conference, arguably the most anticipated of the week, featured internationally renowned architect Rem Koolhaas, Hon. FAIA. The Pritzker Prize winner and founder of OMA spoke on the array of influences on the practice of architecture and their manifestations in built works. Koolhaas emphasized that every architect is shaped by their past experiences and knowledge gleaned from aspects in their lives outside of architecture, and should use those as a building block for their work. The address was a rallying cry for designing within a greater context, recognizing that the architect's sphere of influence extends well beyond the building footprint, impacting the surroundings and the experience of all who encounter the building.

Next-Generation Building Technology

Covering almost three city blocks, the expo hall was packed throughout the conference. From next-generation elevator technology that shortens ride times by grouping passengers by destination floor, to sleek new bathroom fixtures, there was no shortage of intriguing products that can change the look and function of buildings in the coming years, including green roof technologies to more easily turn the tops of buildings into habitable gardens, glazing systems that will allow for larger spans of glass, and high-performance cladding systems which can be both visually appealing and help buildings reduce energy use.

International Impact and Urban Issues

While the AIA is dedicated to the practice of architecture in the United States, several other organizations around the world serve the same function for their respective countries. During the International Presidents Forum at the convention, presidents and representatives from more than two dozen organizations spoke about issues impacting the profession and the universality of struggles and successes in the field. Discussion focused on the upcoming UN-Habitat convention to be held in Quito, Ecuador, which will address the growth of the world's urban population and the measures that should be taken to design to promote sustainability and provide for all citizens of growing urban centers.

Biology and Design

Neri Oxman isn’t a typical architect. The MIT professor delivered a captivating keynote on Friday to a packed room, highlighting her research on the intersection of design and biophilia. While biology may seem to have an incongruous association with architecture, her unorthodox approach that bridges the disciplines has led to breakthroughs in material use and 3D printing. Oxman’s research questions why a singular material cannot be deployed in different ways to serve all the purposes of a building, from structure to windows. With tests using chitin (what shrimp shells are made of), Oxman and her team have been successful in creating just such a product. Her research could have a fundamental impact on the practice of architecture in the coming years.

Philadelphia in the Spotlight

Each year, the AIA chapter of the host city arranges tours for conference attendees to go on that highlight the best of the city. This year, there were dozens of tours available. Convention goers got to explore buildings old and new, from Philadelphia’s historic City Hall to the latest developments at the Navy Yards, seeing both iconic and cutting edge places that make Philadelphia unique. Aside from the organized tours offered by AIA, the convention gave architects from across the United States the chance to explore one of the country’s oldest cities between sessions. The Philadelphia chapter of the AIA provided all attendees with a map highlighting three curated walking tours around the heart of the city. With obliging weather, the tours were a great way to see a range of Philadelphia’s greatest buildings.

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