C-Stud Poker Anyone?

Holding its annual convention in a monster conference center in Las Vegas was either the coolest thing or the stupidest thing the American Institute of Architects has ever done. There in the anodyne exotic of the Mandalay Bay hotel (gold glass, artificially preserved palms) nearly 25,000 registered architects and associated hangers-on gathered last spring to reaffirm architecture’s ability—its unique ability, as speaker after speaker opined—to change the world. And what a world. Even with all the explosive growth in town, Mandalay Bay is still one of the last stops on the Strip; the airport is across the way, past a holdout stand of hot sheet motels. There may even be real people living nearby in the dingy side streets. Condo courts, gas stations, mini-malls—the AIA had plopped right down in a patch of default siding-and-cinder-block vernacular, American space at its worst.

Up the road—back toward the strangely inconsequential 113-story spire of the Stratosphere Hotel (rooftop coaster, Chapel in the Clouds)—marched the architectural one-liners from which presumably the architects had come once again to learn: Luxor (big engineering, bad light); Excalibur (a Playmobil nightmare); New York-New York (note perfect). If architects had arrived in such droves to confront their demons—the poverty of American space, the puzzle of everyday construction, the quandaries of a profession on the margins—it was all right outside the door, blanching nicely in the desert sun.

Sadly they had not come for self-conscious examination; they had come to live in a bubble. The title of the conference suggested as much, as well as a certain shortfall of perspective (or a surfeit of irony) at the AIA: “The Power of Architecture: Imagine, Create, Transform.” Norbert Young Jr., chairman of the American Architectural Foundation board of regents, picked up the theme at one giant general session, held in “Lagoon” or “Breakers” or “Banyan” or one of the other themed multiuse hangar-scaled rooms banged together to seat the bland, eager crowd of 3,000-plus architects looking for direction. From Young they got an ego boost. “Our industry is so important, no one can live without us,” he said. “I firmly believe that the power of architecture uniquely qualifies me and you to be leaders.” The president of the AAF followed, announcing “an ambitious strategic growth plan” to get word out about—wait for it—“the power of architecture.”

Was the word not out? Apart from the gambling and the sex—the casinos have very much stepped back from the family-values flirtations of recent years—architecture is the reason the tourists come, in such numbers lately that they have been spilling off the curbs into the flow of Hummers and limos on Las Vegas Boulevard. But as always, that sort of architecture, construction of the, dare we say it, low variety—the kind that actually gets a rise out of people—was not the subject of the conference. Its true aims were revealed in the abjectly lionizing reception given to Santiago Calatrava—“this poet, this magician, this master”—joining the show just long enough to get his gold medal props and wow the crowd with one of his signature real-time sketch lectures, painting a watercolor site plan of his soaring Milwaukee Art Museum as supplicant architects oohed and aahed the projected images. ¡Magnífico!

That was a singular moment of high art appreciation, but the chatter at most other sessions was similarly remote from the Vegas (read: American) context. In one, Constance Adams spacewalked her audience through the latest in her NASA-funded work on interplanetary ergonomics (“The most successful spacecraft will follow biological paradigms and serve as a symbiont for the human parasite”). Another popular session, standing room only an hour before start time, explored “Fifteen Trends That Are Transforming the Architecture Profession” (from the PowerPoint: “The future will be both wonderful and worrisome for architects”; “Those who do not like change are going to like irrelevance even less”; “Not all design has to be sexy”). One of the only half-nods to the urban and material train wreck beyond the air-conditioned halls was “Learning from Las Vegas in the Media Age,” a panel discussion with the requisite shout-outs to the work of Venturi, Scott Brown, and Izenour (“It is the very success of the casino that is the source of our greatest discomfort,” one panelist stated. “It literally legitimizes a whole spectrum of adult, if not illicit, behavior”).

As all of this was playing out upstairs in the conference center, a very different picture of the state of the profession was on display, literally, at the mammoth Design Exposition on the ground floor. Braving the long aisles of this trade show was like strolling through the pages of the Sweets catalog. Sections of the room were devoted to the sundry stuff of building—there was an avenue of steel shapes, and another for concrete forms and mixes; there was a secluded ghetto for tension structures and a corner devoted to functional bric-a-brac-like antipigeon spikes. (Talk here was of a different sort than that favored at the info sessions: “If the bird sits behind our product,” I overheard the man in the bird-control booth saying to a potential customer, “I can’t be responsible for the result.”) Otis Elevator had a cool display. And in the middle of it all, surrounded by row after row of synthetic materials (insulating gels, fake spruce, Corian) and essential gadgets (lightning rods, Lutron dimmers), the Natural Stone Council—“the united voice of the natural stone industry”—had set up a huge and rather sad stage on which to make its case. Got Stone? Stone, the Other White Meat? That’s what it has come to.

The disconnect was complete between the inspirational speaking at “the power of architecture” group-therapy sessions and the implications of the expo’s cornucopia. Here, in line after line of material choices, was one answer to the problem that the conference so blindly chose to ignore. How do you make American building culture vital—all of it, not just the custom jobs? How do you avoid the sort of soul-damning urbanism that the architects know so well from home and might have seen again had they dared to escape from Mandalay Bay? How do you communicate “the power of architecture”?

Damned if I know. But it can’t hurt to take a few steps back and steal an idea from Strunk and White’s classic Elements of Style: Show, don’t tell. Or Nike: Just Do It. And the expo held the key to how it might be done. American buildings, from the smallest to the largest, are built from a kit of parts. If architects hope to improve the aggregate urban experience, they should make better buildings. If they hope to make better buildings, they will have to start with better stuff—or even better, make better use of the good stuff we have. Start with the c-stud and concrete decking and wallboard, and ask them what they want to be.

Most of the interesting architecture I’ve seen in recent years has that sensibility in common: it’s not trying to fight the system, not trying to pretend that American construction is generally more than the assembly—hasty or thoughtful—of Legos. Beyond the basics, the vast material creativity on display at the AIA convention—nautical technologies from Ronstan, Cambridge Architectural Mesh—far surpassed the rhetorical creativity on offer. And if architects want even better stuff, they only have to demand it—so that one day our earthly buildings might be more fitting symbionts for the human parasite.

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