In an astonishing turn of events — with impact or interest that is probably insignificant to anyone but myself — I have been elevated to be a national Fellow of the American Institute of Architects. I am now FAIA, or as some architects like to say “I am an F”. It might sound disingenuous of me to sound humble or doubting. After all, I started on this track when I was twenty-one. I studied architecture and interned in the field for about ten years, and I have had my own business as an architect for nearly thirty years. Also, this year, it took months of complicated, full-time work to even prepare the complicated 40-page submittal for the FAIA award. Only 3% of all the 91,000 AIA architect members receive this honor. According to an article in “Architect: The Journal of The American Institute of Architects” (May 18,2015), females comprise only 28% of architectural staff in AIA member–owned firms, 26% of licensed architects (who are not principals or partners), and 17% of principals and partners. I am proud that I have overcome norms and expectations, and that I may be a good role model. And perhaps I should not be surprised for my work to be recognized? Still, I keep thinking that there will be a letter soon, advising me that they meant to send the congratulations and award to another person and that it mistakenly came my way. I seem to be addicted to my Imposter Syndrome, despite this high recognition that should have convinced me otherwise. Yes, I am a registered architect. Yes, I have worked hard, I have loved my work, and I consider it worthy. But I have had an unorthodox approach to the field of Architecture which has led me into the strange and eccentric realm of Interpretive Design. And I have done my share of bitching about the AIA. So, this win on a first try is a shock.
I am honored. I am humbled. I am happy. I am grateful. Now, what should I do about this? What are my responsibilities?
I think that one way to pay it forward is to describe Interpretive Design, or even the value of interpretation at all. In this world there is now a background din of “fake news!”, and you would think that I, a rather extreme liberal, would prefer to stick with the facts. I do. I recognize facts and try to stick with them. For instance, I have honed my Facebook sharing so that I post only those items that show original sources of consensual integrity. But to find any facts that are “indisputable”; well that is proving to be harder and harder. You might say (as did e.e. cummings) that “death is no parenthesis”. Death is fact. But I have a life-long practice of skepticism, and I would probably even argue about that.
This is not a small or even simply a philosophical issue for me. I have had arguments about this (arguments with serious personal consequences) with a good friend who is a lawyer. She would say “there are facts”. I would agree. But then, I am an architect working in the field of interpretation, and I would counter that in the world of human experience, in the practical world, interpretation is often more important than facts. I would press that this is true almost all of the time. Obviously, she thinks that what she is doing as a lawyer arguing the “facts” is essential and honest work. I was not contradicting that, but I was arguing that even her argument is really an interpretation of the facts; that an argument by definition is an interpretation. What we communicate and how we communicate it are, at least, equivalent in value. In human experience, most of all content that happens at least one split moment after “fact”, is not devoid of, nor divorce-able from form. I am not saying that we should present lies. I do believe that we need to attempt to convey truth (and fact) as well and as honestly as we can. To do that, you need integrity, you need to be listening well, and you need to have a mastery of your manipulation of form.
In our human efforts to get closer and closer to truth and beauty, we now are deeply into data mining. Currencies that move nations are based upon speculative interpretation. We support (though, arguably do not base) our political inclinations upon accumulated “data”. Statistics and algorithms abound. Still, I would say, that what you cull from these seemingly impersonal facts are based upon the questions you ask and the plateaus of decisions or inclinations you already hold. In the long distant past, Geomancers gave rich people the greatest promises of good karmic flow. Now, the more expensive lawyers do that.
In the world of exhibits, which is the world I have inhabited and helped to furnish for the past thirty years, I have seen that a pure reflection of facts is impossible. Interpretation is able to be manipulated. And it is a great responsibility. So, I have accepted projects in which I believe, and clients who seem to share my point of view, and then I have tried to honestly reflect ideas in the Big Picture and specific details of my designs (and the designs of my teams). I know that a worthy conveyance of fact is at the mercy of one’s ability as a designer. You have to have a concept and you have to have the ability to state it well. I am arguing that if you want to be a designer, become a good and capable designer, the best you can be.
In the field I have chosen, it is imperative to know how people learn. I am fascinated with this. And so, I have studied education. For decades, education in the USA has focused upon linguistics and math. Whenever I think that anyone might listen, I have insisted that we need to learn design literacy more than math. Oh yes, we all need a foundation of mathematics. But most of us need math only to a point. We need to know addition, subtraction, division, multiplication, percentages, and fractions. Beyond that, I would argue that math education could be optional. Instead, I have maintained that design education should be mandatory. It is my assertion that design education should start in elementary school and continue from there. Not that all of us should be designers, but that we should all be cognizant and literate about design. Design surrounds us 24/7. It affects us every day and night, awake or asleep. Without good and proper education, many people do not understand how much design abounds and affects them. But design is in the technologies, the places, the tools, the furniture, clothing, devices, and buildings in which we live or with which we have a connection, ALL of the time. An understanding of design would, I believe, help us all to make deliberate and intelligent choices that would better our lives through an understanding of how form is an interpretation of content and intent.
My point, my admonishment, my plea, is that you (we, each of us) start out from a point of compassion, care, and love, and then that we learn our craft well so that we can carefully, with technical prowess, and with positive intention, manipulate form and interpretive conveyance to reflect and embody those deep and serious intentions. I would argue that we need to better educate people about design. We need really good education for everyone.
So, I am now an F. And I will wear it as proudly as a progressive politician wearing a “F” rating from the NRA. I know that this is great. I am honored. And now that I have achieved this high rating and recognition, I cannot just be content.