Engaging people - communicating architecture

Friday 9 June 2017

©Agnese Sanvito

Leading figures from architecture centres in New York, Chicago and Washington DC were at the NLA this morning to share their experiences in communicating built environment issues to the public.

Benjamin Prosky, Executive Director, Center for Architecture/AIA New York said that for some reason, people ‘get a little intimidated by architecture’, so his organisation was spending time to find out who its audience is in order to reach ‘beyond just architects’. ‘Our challenge is that architecture is experienced daily by all but understood by few’, he said. The Center for Architecture in New York gets some 27,000 visitors a year, with 75% of them architects and design professionals, so has work to do to reach other members of the public.

To that end, it has created an outreach programme including focusing on children, runs more than 200 public programmes a year, along with tours, galas, parties and competitions. It also stages Archtober, with a popular series of building tours every day during the month, as well as a profile-raising event called Pumpkitecture – where designers carve and decorate pumpkins, and which was picked up by US TV. ‘That delighted and killed me’ said Prosky, referring to the way less frivolous campaigns had garnered less in the way of publicity. But elsewhere Prosky said that the professions needed to do more on diversity – in a nation where less than 2% of architects are people of colour, and where 32% of women leave architecture within 10 years. Prosky quoted Michelle Obama on the issue: ‘you can’t aspire to become an architect if you don’t know what an architect is or what an architect does’

Lynn Osmond, President and CEO, Chicago Architecture Foundation said her institution operates under the mantra ‘meet your city’, translating issues that are important for city dialogue and aiming to engage the public in a dialogue about architecture and design. ‘Our mission is to inspire people to discover why design matters’, said Osmond. The organisation is 51 years old and is probably best known for a 90-minute architecture river cruise that is ‘a way of getting people in the door. It’s really the entry point to a much more complex subject matter’, she said. The Foundation takes part in Open House Chicago, which Osmond commended for the way it ‘pushes people into the neighbourhoods’, along with public programmes, architecture talks, exhibitions, courses and workshops that are part of a lifelong learning programme. It has also made ‘No Small Plans’, a graphic novel on architecture which it will be distributing to 30,000 Chicago teens, and is developing a new architecture centre that opens next year.

In discussion, Washington DC’s National Building Museum executive director Chase Rynd said his institution had grown out of the repurposing of the historic building in which it now sits, serving 600,000 visitors a year within a rich and competitive museums environment.

It too does similar work to his counterparts in New York and Chicago – exhibitions, youth programmes, lectures and tours but also fights against what people perceive it to be. But the key was highlighted in a recent show at the museum, said Rynd, on natural disasters, with a final gallery on ‘what this means to you’ – engaging the public through the kinds of items they might need in the wake of a disaster. ‘We tell the story, but ultimately bring it right down to the individual’, said Rynd.

David Taylor

Editor, New London Quarterly 

This event was part of the London: Design Capital Insight Study and exhibition

In association with Toggle

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