Q&A: Robert Ivy, CEO, the American Institute of Architects

Robert Ivy, CEO of the American Institute of Architects, says architects are focusing more on public health and resilience -- and interdisciplinary collaboration.
Written by Reena Jana, Contributor

Warm, soft-spoken, and wise, Robert Ivy can deftly steer a conversation on innovation from the history of U.S. urban planning to why it's important for architects to cross-pollinate ideas with software programmers. Ivy is the chief executive officer and executive vice president of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), a membership-based professional organization -- and while his professional focus is obviously on the building, design, and construction industries, Ivy encourages architects to think far beyond their field.

Architecture, he believes, can have a deep impact in numerous areas, from providing disaster relief solutions to improving health. And the AIA has been getting attention in recent months outside of the design profession. As Sun Joo Kim reported on SmartPlanet, the organization's Monthly Architecture Billings Index, a survey that architects watch to track the performance and promise of the U.S. building industry, is believed by some to be be a very accurate general economic indicator for the United States. And at the Clinton Global Initiative's Annual Meeting in September, a gathering of political, business, and cultural leaders from around the world, the AIA announced a ten-year commitment to develop solutions and programs focused on public health, sustainability, and resiliency to natural disasters in urban areas. As part of the commitment, the organization is supporting university research with grants; will work on a community plan in a yet-to-be named major international city; and will hold an intensive hackathon to create a phone app or other software project.

I caught up recently with Ivy in New York and asked him about how the architecture profession is evolving -- and crossing over with other sectors successfully. Here's our edited conversation.

SmartPlanet: Can you offer some context for the idea that architecture can improve public health?

Robert Ivy: Design has played an integral role in public health throughout the course of the history of the U.S., dating back to the draining of swamps in Washington, D.C., to the Olmsted design of Central Park in New York. The idea with Central Park was to eradicate substandard housing and normalize a part of the city that was challenged. Originally, it was not primarily a recreational space -- it was conceived in the context of improving public health.

What's interesting is that in architectural circles, we focus on different themes at different times. In the last decade, there was an emphasis on formalism. Publications looked as buildings as objects more than as social engines or agents of change or as places that would affect public health, but in fact they do. A new generation of architects has new interests, though: young architects are socially engaged, they're interested in hands-on building, and diverse populations. They are also very health-focused, too; health is related to these topics. So this is the new trend. But there is a history behind it.

SP: What can architecture affect directly, in terms of specific public health issues?

Ivy: Architecture can likely affect a community's rate of non-communicable diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease. Buildings and cities can be designed to promote exercise, say, by creating a building where it is necessary to walk up stairs. And it's important to keep in mind that basic design principles already force architects consider health every day: we take into consideration how buildings have access to sunlight, fresh air, clean water.

A huge area where design can affect public health is materials selection. Our choices of materials make an enormous difference in both individual and mass health. An unhealthy system can affect a large number of people. If it does no harm, that's good. But if it can enhance life, that's even better.

SP: So looking to designs and materials that can improve health, rather than maintain occupants' health, is a new goal...

Ivy: Well, we've had a mantra as designers to promote health, safety, and welfare. I liken this mantra in a way to the Mona Lisa. You know, so many people have looked at the Mona Lisa so many times, they can't see her any more, and she's a blur. I think that's a metaphor for how some designers and architects perceive of that mantra to promote health, safety, and welfare. Sometimes, we don't really think about it. So today, we are recasting it in new terms. Now we talk about "well-being," as opposed to "welfare." That's a fraught term in our culture. If you recast the mantra, it opens a whole new understanding of what design professionals should be doing. "Well-being" involves the larger sense of human potential. It has to do with not only physical but also psychic and even spiritual states. All those things are interlinked and matter in terms of your well-being, health, and potential. Design and architecture can be very powerful.

SP: The AIA is now looking into supporting the development of device apps and sponsoring hackathons -- these seem like good ways to place architecture in a really contemporary context, technologically and experientially.

Ivy: In terms of the hackathon, well, the concept is really appropriate for architects. Architects and the design community in general are entirely comfortable with contests and comparative discrimination. It's part of our professional life to compete. Hackathons fit right in that mode. Plus, hackathons seem like a growing phenomenon at the municipal level to get the tech community together to coalesce around solutions.

We think it's a great way to engage architects, designers, engineers in a low-cost way and to result in measurable ideas. Apps could incorporate already successful app ideas, such as tracking calorie consumption, but now relate it to how calories are consumed in a building. Using technology in this way will engage members of public with architecture. Normally, general audiences are not conversant with architects, but we think it will be good for both sides to interact with with each other.

SP: It seems as if the AIA is looking to collaborate well outside of the architecture field. Is this a new phenomenon?

Ivy: We need to be collaborating with other professions more; nothing happens in isolation. I think the vision of the architect as some sort of isolated creative genius is fading. More and more people are seeing us as master collaborators. Architects know how to put teams of people together. Yes, many architects are supremely gifted in design. But they are more characterized by finding smart people and creating teams that are large, diverse, and include experts from all disciplines. One of the key skills of successful architects is the ability to manage huge teams -- whether a building is eventually built or not -- from the seed of a concept to financing to construction to measurement of the building's success.

SP: So what do architects need to focus on in the future to help the field evolve further, and to spur more humanitarian and economic impact?

Ivy: Ultimately, we want more proof that buildings are making an impact. We want evidence. Today it is so rare. In the past, most architecture studies only focused on lighting. We need a more sustained, critical effort over time that will give us better results. We know, anecdotally, that certain types of places make people more productive. Or the opposite. It would be wonderful to track this, so buildings that don't seem to correlate with productivity or well-being can be fixed.

Image: Noah Kalina, courtesy American Institute of Architects

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