As if we didn’t have enough initials to keep up with, three little letters now demand remembering. You may never have heard of the Union Internationale des Architectes, or U.I.A., but don’t remain ignorant. This international organization, which holds a large gathering every three years, purports to represent the worldwide community of architects and their shared interests, a tall order in an increasingly global, though fractured, civilization. The U.I.A.’s recently concluded triennial Congress and Assembly, which was held in Istanbul, Turkey, from July 3 to 10, deserves a retrospective look from both sides of the Bosphorus.
First, a bit of background. Founded in 1948, the organization has wobbled from initially lofty goals to the present, with varying degrees of efficacy. In the past decade, its proceedings have occasionally seemed centered on arcane legalisms, though in fact, many topics have been of import to architects everywhere. Like the United Nations, the subject matter has sometimes been occluded by polemics, by political posturing and U.S. bashing, and plagued with financial woes (who pays for this uber-organization?). Few serious designers have given the U.I.A more than a lazy glance, but the world has changed.
This July witnessed a kind of perceptual shift, a subjective realization that the congress had been vivified. Attendance provided a key indicator: In 2005, energy fairly crackled around the gathering, as upwards of 7,500 architects flew into Istanbul for a weeklong, self-styled architectural bazaar. Dashikis, saris, and fezzes blended with blue jeans in a buzzing polyphony emblematic of the disparate character of the participants.
Youth added to the buzz, mobbing keynote speakers such as Michael Sorkin and Moshe Safdie, FAIA, like rock stars after each performance, and peppering them with bids for attention. Holding the congress adjacent to the nation’s preeminent architecture school, the Istanbul Technical University, enriched proceedings too often dominated by 40-somethings. Kids were everywhere.
Organizers, including the current president, Turkish-born Suha Ozkan, Hon. AIA, as well as the 26,400 members of the Chamber of Architects of Turkey, served up a wealth of programmatic offerings in a variety of locales, providing a disconcerting range of events at any time. Which one to choose? Twin, simultaneous speakers often vied for attention, as did multiple panelists presenting academic papers, scattered across the cityscape.
Yet the real draw lay not in the substance of the remarks (who, after all, will remember exactly what Odile Decq said, except “to resist”), but in the mélange. Chance encounters with colleagues known and unknown, the extended conversations over cocktails, the disjunctures that brought small shocks of recognition, all added up to a broad, if incoherent overview of this confluence of people and ideas. That conceit worked. Such collisions produced their own palpable power.