Although attendance this year was once again virtual for Architectural Record’s Innovation Conference, the event fostered a great sense of community—prompting lively dialogue between presenters and viewers alike. This year’s theme was “Reimagining the City,” and the audience of thousands tuned in live, everywhere from rural America to Europe and Asia. A recurrent theme across the two-day conference was a focus on sustainable and social issues and architects’ role in improving city life for all.

The first keynote speaker, architect David Chipperfield, addressed the business of architecture, from profits to projects, when talking with RECORD editor-in-chief Cathleen McGuigan, and then shifted to sustainability. “The first part of any solution is to acknowledge and recognize the issue (the climate crisis) and take it seriously,” he said, and then asked rhetorically, “Where does architecture hold back rising sea levels or droughts though?”

Continuing this conversation was Carlo Ratti, who presented an idea for improving urban mobility and transport: his Copenhagen Wheel, which is part of his research initiative Senseable City Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Other speakers on day one included Paul Andersen and Paul Preissner, who presented “American Framing,” their exhibition in the U.S. Pavilion at the current Venice Biennale of Architecture, and Teddy Cruz and Fonna Forman, who discussed their eponymous firm’s research and design interventions at the San Diego/Tijuana border.

Closing the first day was German architect Christoph Ingenhoven, whose keynote addressed the possibility of “building big” with the latest technologies while still being mindful of the planet. “We’re all trying our very very best. Nobody knows what the right way is today, but we know it is not using more oil, more energy, or more CO2,” he said. Ingenhoven also discussed “greening cities” – by adding shade, increasing urban mobility, and using less water – as well as bolstering environmental requirements around the world, and pointed to development in cities like Dusseldorf and Stuttgart, where his firm has been engaged in the design and construction of the city’s central train station for over a decade.

Day two of RECORD’s Innovation Conference continued the focus on urban issues and social spaces, and began with OMA’s Ellen van Loon. She presented some of her firm’s recent projects, particularly those that reimagine commercial architecture. Afterward, Angela Brooks introduced Brooks + Scarpa’s Nest toolkit of prefabricated housing modules, followed by a lively discussion between Liz Ogbu of Studio O and Envelope A+’s founder Douglas Burnham about fostering more inclusive neighborhoods. Rosanne Haggerty and McGuigan then had a conversation about Haggerty’s organization, Community Solutions, and its mission to create sustainable, permanent housing to end homelessness.

Capping off the two-day conference was a keynote by Indian architect Rahul Mehrotra, who is head of urban design at Harvard’s GSD and founder of RMA Architects. The theme of his talk was the concept of “flux,” including his theory of “elastic” places that serve several functions – like a cricket field in India that doubles as a wedding venue. Mehrotra also presented thought-provoking ideas about permanence, migration, housing, and transitioning settlements, or what he calls, “the urban time bomb that India is sitting on.” Said Mehrotra: “We can’t think in terms of absolute solutions. As architects, we have to design for transitions—it’s a whole different game.”

RECORD's 2021 Innovation Conference is available to watch for free On Demand through October 2022.