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Drafting New Ideas

`INTERACT, create, educate, innovate." These words, displayed throughout Hynes Convention Center, were themes at the American Institute of Architects' (AIA) convention here June 19-22.

W. Cecil Steward, president of AIA, in his opening speech, compared the present age to Charles Dickens's best of times and worst of times. His speech emphasized architecture's place in the larger scheme of world developments: pivotal events such as the breakup of Eastern European countries, politics, the recession, ozone depletion, and the riots that followed the Rodney King verdict.

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For this visual group, slides of architectural feats, as well as the events Mr. Steward mentioned, were projected onto three large screens behind him as he spoke. "We looked on with horror ... and watched whole neighborhoods go up in flames.... We saw the ashes of individuals' and a community's dreams of a better life." He sadly told the group he had seen "old and respected [architectural] firms halved or dissolved altogether. I've seen the hurt of partnerships broken. I've stood by helplessly as countle ss careers were put on hold."

Steward said that after the recession becomes history, architects will need to respond to a changing world, and that they could lead the way for the nation and the world. "We can be the needle that stitches together the loose, frayed ends of our society into something like Joseph's splendid coat of many colors."

Many architects who attended the meeting agreed with Steward and said they needed to regroup and agitate for change within their profession.

Stuart Ohlson, an architect from Denver, said, "There was a new feeling that architects had to be more aggressive in addressing problems that face the nation. The importance that the environment has on the human being is critical."

Steward's message set the pace for the four-day gathering of architects. Besides the major address, the convention included a daily general session with guest speakers, exhibits of new materials and technology, professional-development seminars, and consultations on a variety of subjects.

Steward cited examples of two cities where successful architectural planning and renovation had reversed dismal situations. An Art Deco-style railroad terminal in Cincinnati was nearly destroyed because Amtrak discontinued its passenger service there.

An architect, who had first seen the terminal as a boy, transformed it into one of the Midwest's newest cultural attractions, according to Steward, now housing two museums, a children's discovery center, a library, a theater, a gallery for exhibitions, and more.

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"But most of all," Steward says, "there are the people, young and old drawn together into a vibrant urban mosaic."

His next example was Curitiba, Brazil. He said that many people who visited Brazil for the Earth Summit traveled to Curitiba because it is a model of architectural and planning solutions from a third-world city that can be used anywhere.

Steward attributes the city's success to its mayor and architect, Jaime Lerner. Steward says Mr. Lerner had "the ability to see the interconnectedness of the nerves, muscle, and bones that make for a living city."

Steward went on to tell the architects that they bring "gifts essential for a community to make informed decisions: the ability to envision the future, our knowledge through education and experience, and the habit of working out our destiny through the consensus of team building." He asked them to see themselves in "a process that plays a part in and leads us to larger issues of social responsibility, the environment, quality of life, and livability."

The discussion of "livability" recurred in several of the urban-design seminars and on tours of Boston neighborhoods, infill architecture, and rebuilt infrastructure (bridges, roadways, tunnels).

The infill architecture (infill refers to buildings that are added to an already established urban area that "fill in" the space) particularly appealed to the architects on one tour. Led by Homer Russell, assistant director for urban design and downtown planning for the Boston Redevelopment Authority, the tour was part bus ride, part walking. The architects craned their necks and pointed out building details to one another, drawing the attention of passersby.

One of the infill projects that drew particular praise was a church that had been turned into a grouping of luxury condominiums at the corner of Massachusetts Avenue and Beacon Street. A fire had burned out the church's interior, and local architect Graham Gund purchased it, created a lovely landscaped garden within the church walls, and designed condos around it.

Liza Medek, an architect from Montreal, said of the result, "It is architecturally wonderful - apartment units surrounding an outdoor space, making it totally private, but on the corner of two very busy streets."

Mr. Homer says that this project, known as "Church Court" was successful because "It's very respectful of this historic area, but playful as well."

Steven G. Cecil, a Boston urban-design architect who was in charge of organizing the tours, said, "The architectural community and friends I saw are all trying to figure out what is a drastically changed environment for our profession, and I think that architects are reconsidering many of their missions."

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