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San Francisco rolled out the proverbial red carpet (with just a hint of fog) last week from June 7 through 10 as host city of the 2023 edition of the American Institute of Architects’ largest annual gathering, the Conference on Architecture. Per AIA estimates, A’23 was attended by more than 15,000 people.

Located in the SoMa neighborhood, the sprawling Moscone Center served as the central venue for A’23, with celebratory parties, walking tours, open studios, and other related goings-on taking place across town. The slickly produced event marked the first time that the conference had been held in San Francisco in more than a decade, a period in which the progressive, perpetually in-flux city has experienced headline-grabbing ups and downs. While welcoming new marquee parks, revitalized swaths of waterfront, and shiny new skyscrapers, San Francisco has also famously struggled with rampant income inequality, rising homelessness, and a dire affordable housing crisis. These challenges—certainly not unique to just the Bay Area—and others were addressed throughout the conference including during continuing education seminars and keynote presentations.

architects at a conference.

Photo by Chloe Jackman Photography, courtesy AIA

Throughout the run of A’23, the mood was festive and energetic as attendees representing a wide swath of the AEC industry continued to get back into conference-mode following AIA’22, which was held in Chicago after a two-year, pandemic-prompted pause. (The scrapped 2020 and 2021 conferences were to have taken place in Los Angeles and Philadelphia, respectively.) In addition to in-person networking with peers, connecting with exhibitors (more than 500 brands were represented on the expo floor), and social opportunities aplenty, AIA ’23 provided attendees with the chance to refamiliarize themselves with San Francisco or explore it for the first time through self-guided city wanderings (John Portman’s Hyatt Regency at the Embarcadero seemed a population destination) or as part of more than 100 organized tours showcasing the city’s rich architectural heritage as well as notable new projects.

Back at the conference proper, Moscone West, designed by hometown firm Gensler, was the site of AIA 23’s keynotes, including a kick-off speech by Barbara Bouza, president of Walt Disney Imagineering. Bouza, a former longtime Gensler principal and president of the AIA’s L.A. chapter since 2018, spoke on numerous topics including the struggles faced by the architectural profession during the pandemic, the collaboration-driven nature of her work with Disney, and her own experiences as a woman of color working in architecture.

“Black women architects really represent less than 1 percent of the profession—not even a half of a percent,” Bouza said. “So, for me to be here today, it’s almost like a miracle. And I'm grateful to be here,” she added to applause.

In his short but potent acceptance speech for the 2023 Whitney M. Young, Jr. Award, Robert Easter, chair of the Department of Architecture at Virginia HBCU Hampton University, also invoked the profession’s struggles with diversity. Noting that the number of licensed Black architects hasn’t grown beyond 2 percent in the decades that have passed since he first began his career, Easter said: “It’s nice to receive an award—it really is. I hope one day, we're able to get past the award in order to do the work of increasing the number of Black architects.”

carol ross barney.

Chicago architect Carol Ross Barney was presented with the 2023 AIA Gold Medal during the conference. Photo courtesy AIA

In addition to Easter, the recipients of other major honors were on hand at A’23 to accept their awards including Firm of the Year recipient, Seattle-based Mithun, and 2023 AIA Gold Medalist Carol Ross Barney, who is the first living woman to be bestowed with the honor as an individual architect. “No architect wants to be known first as a ‘woman architect,’ but the fact is that the Gold Medal has been awarded 78 times since 1907, 75 times to individual male architects … until today, said Chicago-based Ross Barney, who is also a recipient of RECORD’s 2022 Women in Architecture award. “I am immensely proud and happy to break that barrier.”

One of the biggest applause lines during a conference keynote came when the AIA’s top executive, Lakisha Ann Woods, mentioned in her welcome speech the decision by NCARB to retire its longstanding rolling clock policy for the Architect Registration Examination, a move meant to eliminate a major obstacle in the pathway to licensure. “We want to encourage underrepresented communities to bring us their talent and to view architecture as a desirable profession where they are welcome,” Woods said. “And I know we can do it.”

Among the myriad topics covered during the three-day conference’s more than 425 educational sessions, one of the more pertinent to the host city was Exceptional Affordable: High Design Housing for All. Moderated by RECORD editor in chief Josephine Minutillo, the conversation featured Brooks + Scarpa Architects principal Lawrence Scarpa and Amanda Loper, principal with David Baker Architects; both firms are considered trailblazers in bringing elevated design to financially constrained (and often contentious) low-income and supportive housing projects in their respective home cities of L.A. and San Francisco and beyond.

“It used to be a typology that no architect wanted to get near,” said Scarpa of working in affordable housing. “Now it’s becoming something where you can do something good, and not as a vanity project, for people who really need it.”

jacinda arden in a panel conversation.

Former New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in conversation with 2023 AIA President Emily Grandstaff-Rice at the day three keynote. Photo courtesy AIA

Bringing good design to those for whom permanent and affordable housing has been elusive was also discussed by the conference’s final keynote speaker, former Prime Minister of New Zealand Jacinda Ardern. During her wide-ranging conversation with AIA President Emily Grandstaff-Rice, Arden shared with the assembled crowd her favorite new building back home: HomeGround, a government-funded commission designed by Stevens Lawson Architects that serves as headquarters of housing and social services nonprofit Auckland City Mission –Te Tāpui Atawhai. Arden listed off the myriad qualities of the building, including its earthquake-resilient cross-laminated timber construction (the project is the tallest mass timber building in New Zealand) and its incorporation of Māori and Pacific design elements.

“The thing that I love about this building is how beautiful it is. And what it stands for,” said Ardern before pausing. “This is a homeless shelter. And this is a building that has been designed to bring dignity to those that it houses.”

“Dignity and design feels really important to me,” continued Arden. “In New Zealand, we’ve had periods where [the design] has been great and periods, for economic reasons, where we’ve lapsed into construction with little thought to the people with lived experience who are within them. But in this building, we came back to the things that mattered: a sustainable space, a functional space, a beautiful space.”

Next year’s AIA Conference on Architecture will take place in Washington, D.C. June 5–8, 2024.