Why “Looking Up” is Important.

by Aaron Hill, AIA | AIA Cleveland President

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In order for us to become a more valued and relevant profession, the time has come to change perceptions about architects.  According to a Harris Poll conducted last year of over 30,000 people, architecture is one of the highest-regarded professions in the United States.  However, thinking highly of an architect, and understanding what an architect does are two different things.  That same survey revealed that a gap exists between admiration and understanding, as those surveyed had a limited understanding of how an architect works to develop an idea and transform it into reality.

No one is more aware of this difference than the American Institute of Architects.  In response to the lack of public knowledge about the profession, the AIA decided to do something it’s never done in its history: advertise on television.  The goal is simple, yet extraordinarily important—to expand the public’s awareness of how architects impact their daily lives.

Super Bowl Sunday kicked-off a three-year initiative by the AIA to demonstrate architects’ value to society.  The integrated campaign is designed to re-connect the public with architecture and position new generations of architects as catalysts of growth and visionaries for renewal.  The campaign, titled “Look Up”, capitalizes on the original thinking architects bring to solving problems.  “We are undertaking this campaign to not only change the perception of architecture and architects among the public, but to also place the architect back into the national discussion on infrastructure, economy, the health of communities, and the future of our country,” said AIA CEO Robert Ivy, FAIA.

The campaign urges people to take note of the architecture in their everyday lives; to see architects as members of their community, constantly seeking the highest potential in the world they create; to see that the comfort, harmony, security, and awe in our world is no coincidence. It’s the work of architects.  “This campaign we’re doing is significant because we’re not going to focus on what an architect does, or how they do it,” says Roy Spence, CEO and founder of The Purpose Institute and the creative force behind the campaign. “We’re going to shine a light on why architects do what they do.”

Click here to see the commercial.

The television commercials, appearing on CBS, NBC, CNN, CNBC, and Fox Newswill be broadcast through April.  Following the television spots, the AIA will launch a series of print ads through the fall in the build up to an even bigger public awareness push that includes two new television commercials in 2016 with promotional support and efforts on industry briefings, legislative information campaigns, media and speaker training, component media relations development, emerging professionals support, and additional broadcast media campaigns.

The majority of reaction to the campaign has been positive.  For instance, an editorial in this month’s Metropolis magazine praised the campaign for its celebration of diversity, acknowledging that the AIA knows it needs a more diverse architectural field if the organization is going to survive and thrive in the future.  And this celebration of diversity is about more than just race or gender.

But the campaign is not free from detractors, as one writer (Justin Shubow) for Forbes recently wrote a disappointing article stating that “the outreach campaign is doomed to fail.”  This adverse article goes on to make biased and improper statements that seem merely intended to grab attention and create controversy.  The writer suggests that “architects services are never required”, and “if you need design services, it’s just as easy to hire a contractor or engineer to slap something together” because “architects are an additional expense, and they have a reputation for being difficult and impractical.”  Cynical statements such as these being read by the public are exactly why the message of this campaign is desperately needed.  As AIA President Elizabeth Chu Richter, FAIA notes, “Our overarching goal with this campaign is to make sure that when clients are considering whether to design or build anything, the first call they make is to an architect.  We have the skills, talents and creative thinking that is best for a holistic approach to the design and building process.”

The Forbes article makes the claim that the “AIA fails to consider that their problem is not fundamentally one of public relations—it is the product: the junk that architects are churning out.”  The writer’s classification of architecture as “junk” is founded in his belief that “the AIA is dominated by a Modernist orthodoxy hostile toward traditional and classical architecture and urbanism.”  While it is certainly true that architecture is subjective and a matter of personal taste, it is simply untrue that the AIA is opposed to architectural diversity.  The AIA is certainly not about promoting a specific style of architecture, such as iconic modernism, but rather focuses on supporting the diversity of work by all architects.  Whether our designs favor modern or traditional, we are all the AIA.  The more diverse the field of designers, the ideas, and the meanings that are embedded in the built environment the better.

Contrary to what this particular writer seems to believe, architecture is not a stylistic choice.  As the ‘Look Up’ commercial states, the architect envisions the potential of what can be; their work considers nature, art, and history, as well as the limitations of every project and the ways around these limitations. It asserts that architects “look within,” “look through the eyes of others,” and listen to their clients as well as to their own hearts. “It’s about purpose,” says Roy Spence. “Architects are wired to care and to listen when they’re at their best—and create things that have never existed.

Yes, we all recognize that “Look Up” is a commercial, and commercials are about image, aspirations, and branding.  But we should all be hopeful for our profession’s future and work toward making this vision a reality.  To be an architect is to be relentlessly optimistic.  This advertising campaign will be experienced by millions of people and I appreciate the AIA’s effort to bring attention and understanding to our profession.  But reaching millions begins with one person and it is the responsibility of each one of us, as AIA members, to create a positive experience for our clients and the public. Changing perceptions will require us all to become positive advocates for architecture.  You’ll be hearing more from AIA Cleveland in the coming weeks regarding how our concerted advocacy efforts can strengthen and elevate our entire architectural community.

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