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a PhD in live projects and architectural education

Minnesota Nice: AIAS Forum 2009

I’m back from sunny Minnesota. Sunny, snowy and sub-zero (in both Celsius and Fahrenheit) Minnesota. It was a great pleasure to be welcomed to the American Institute of Architecture Students (AIAS) 2009 Forum, and I owe a debt of thanks to the forum organisers for their hard work in preparing such a large event. There were about five hundred and fifty delegates in attendance, mostly students of architecture from schools throughout North America. Here’s a view of the Nicollet Ballroom before one of the nightly general sessions, before which chapters (representing individual schools of architecture) confirmed their presence to a daily roll call with a selection of sports field chants, musical parodies, borderline sexual jokes and (for those attending on their own) solitary wails or monologues.

There was a busy programme of workshops, general sessions, keynotes, tours and events. I had the pleasure of putting my head round the door of a design charette at the University of Minnesota and visiting some local architectural practices who opened their doors during the Forum Firm Crawl. The Forum was an excellent opportunity for me to get a feel for what students of architecture in the United States are currently talking about. It should be no surprise that top of the bill is pretty much the same thing that British and Irish students are talking too: the recession. Representatives of the AIA (American Institute of Architects) at state and national level spoke during the general sessions, all imploring architecture students not to give up, because although times are bad “we need you” (George H. Miller, AIA President, if I attributed that correctly) and “you are agents of change” (Thomas Fisher, Dean of the University of Minnesota College of Design).

What struck me, however, was an absence (as far as I found it, at least) of any discussion of alternative practices, especially those that might see students through the economic malaise. I was impressed by the students who presented recent AIAS Freedom By Design projects, which are the latest additions to a long history and culture of pro bono work in the community by architecture students in the United States. But in response to the problems faced by the recession, I sensed only a cultural attitude that the economy will eventually pick up, and students should be primed and ready to leap back into traditional commercial practice as soon as that happens.

This was very much a meeting between the profession and its future members. While I understand there was some heavy socialising going on in the evenings (I politely excused myself to accept the kind offer of free accommodation outside the city) during the daytime I noted the business-like atmosphere of the Forum. The majority of workshops on offer were proposed to develop employability, through portfolio, technical and presentation skills. And while the rowdiness of the roll call described above was in stark contrast to the image of a diverse and inclusive profession that I understood the AIAS and AIA to be campaigning for, the atmosphere of the event was overwhelmingly business-like. The Forum delegates represented the most motivated and the most passionate students of architecture in the country (being as most are, paid up members of the AIAS and representatives of this national body of students at their local schools).

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