AIA Charlotte notebook: Awards, ideas, profits

June 01, 2002 |

As some 16,000 architects last month descended on Charlotte, N.C., for the annual American Institute of Architects convention, they were bombarded with critical insight and award-winning stories of inspiration, none more surprising than the financial news that the profession's dominant trade association remarkably was back in black.

On the evening of May 9 at the Charlotte City Club, Building Design & Construction distributed its own annual Building Team Project of the Year Awards. (Recipients were profiled in last month's issue. For more on the winners, visit our Web site: )

Speakers included the evening's unofficial local co-host, Robert Kellner, managing principal of Charlotte architect Odell Associates. He shared the dais with longtime client Jim Palermo, executive vice president of real estate for Charlotte-based Bank of America. They each spoke of the collaborative imperative between client and architect and said that a responsible corporate citizen such as the bank, which owns 6 million square feet of Charlotte office space, can have a profoundly positive effect on its community if it embraces the importance of its role.

Less positive was the business forecast shared by Reed Business Information economist Daryl Delano, who cautioned that 2002's first-quarter bounce appears not to be sustainable. Although the worst of the ongoing recession appears to be over for both the commercial and industrial markets, Delano said he does not expect the economy to be firing on all cylinders again until the middle of 2003.

In a more uplifting vein, "Churches" author Judith Dupré also spoke on the divine inspiration that many have historically found in design and construction. In fact, since she also authored "Skyscrapers" eight years ago, Dupré said she was struck by the similarities between the two art forms. In fact, she argued that cathedrals were really history's first skyscrapers and that their influence is still more than subtle. To illustrate her point, she ended her talk with a rendering of Renzo Piano's design for the new London Bridge Tower in Great Britain. It looks just like a giant church spire, she noted.

Picking up that theme in Saturday's forum of previous AIA Gold Medal winners, architect Micahel Graves noted that centuries ago, communities had turned to cathedral design and construction to lift their spirits, he said. With that in mind, in the wake of Sept. 11, Graves observed that the attacks underscored the idea that all citizens have a stake in the quality of their environment.

So the quality of Ground Zero's redevelopment, Graves said, will convey an important message of the power of design to impact the environment of lower Manhattan. He cited as examples the rejuvenating influence that museums can exert on a city, like Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, which has energized the industrial city.

Moderated by president of Nissan Design Intl., Jerry Hirschberg, the May 11 forum also featured two other previous medalists: architects Arthur Erickson and Richard Meier. The trio debated the public's current interest in their profession. Meier lamented that the number of architectural critics employed by U.S. newspapers has decreased. Erickson characterized coverage of architecture as an exercise in "dumbing down" the subject matter and covering only "the surface aspect of design."

Adding to its elite club, AIA awarded its 2002 individual Gold Medal to Japanese architect Tadao Ando, a disciple of LeCorbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright. Renowned for his integral incorporation of landscaping, the 60-year-old Ando is best known in the U.S. for his designs of the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts in St. Louis and the new Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth in Texas.

Meanwhile, the 2002 AIA Firm Award went to Atlanta-based Thompson, Ventulett, Stainback & Associates, for its stylish public projects, such as the neighborly new convention center in Milwaukee. According to its AIA citation, "TVS is a firm that achieves greatness in the public arena against all odds."

Comeback kids

Beating very different odds, AIA also reported in Charlotte that it had actually made money in 2001. Just a year after dire predictions of huge annual deficits, AIA disclosed that a number of remedial steps put in place already was yielding significant benefits. As a result, the group's 2001 audit, completed this spring by accountants PriceWaterhouseCoopers LLP, shows $3.1 million in net assets, based on total annual revenues of $39.2 million.

In all, AIA turned a profit of $1.66 million. Last spring, after 2000 net assets had fallen into the red by $1.5 million, AIA projected that it would fall to nearly $6 million in annual debt. However, that fate was averted in January when AIA later decided to abandon its failed Internet venture AECdirect, says Norman L. Koonce, AIA executive vice president and CEO. The investment had amassed debts to some 60 creditors. Under an agreement with the Delaware Secretary of State, Architects-Engineers-Contractors Inc. (AECdirect) was officially dissolved, with creditors agreeing to receive only a fraction back on their investment.

Now, Koonce says AIA expects its assets will climb to $4.5 million in 2003, a level not seen since 1998.

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