I write this month’s letter as violent protests on college campuses across the U.S. dominate the headlines. At press time, commencement ceremonies for some schools remain a big question mark. On May 3, Columbia University’s president, Minouche Shafik, released a pre-recorded video addressing the protests. What struck me was her saying, “For those of you who are seniors, you’re finishing classes the way you started—online.”

For a generation of students, the pandemic caused the process of learning to take place apart from bucolic campuses and stately academic buildings, as education retreated into a virtual world. Obviously, students aren’t the only ones affected by the withdrawal from the public domain in the last few years. We’ve all gotten used to a different kind of working and socializing. But at what cost?

You often hear talk these days about the breakdown of civil society. The anonymity of the digital realm allows for behavior you would never think to express or condone IRL (in real life, for those of you who remain firmly planted there). Yet the physical space we occupy matters. With an important upcoming election and an AIA Conference this month in our nation’s capital, we focused this issue of RECORD on civic architecture.

Beginning with the House of the Month [online soon], for the Swiss ambassador in Algeria, and moving to embassies, consulates, courtrooms, and municipal complexes, a common thread among these buildings is the ample space they provide for gathering. (We opted not to feature the photos, particularly of the ambassador’s house, that showed lots and lots of chairs used for all those gatherings!) Being able to come together in person for discussion or drinks, for celebration or to air one’s grievances, goes a long way toward civility. This is unlike the 2024 Republican Party presidential debates that took place between August and January, where the leading candidate did not participate, refusing to be in the same room with his competitors. Needless to say, this is not a great example to set for those vying to lead the country.

The cover of this issue features a project in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol. The Folger Shakespeare Library, designed by Paul Cret (1932), is reopening this month after undergoing a significant overhaul by KieranTimberlake. Like many cultural institutions, the Folger digitized its content a decade ago, making it freely available online. So can architecture and place still provide a compelling alternative to virtual worlds?

Stephen Kieran, who led the Folger’s renovation, of course believes the answer to be yes. But, more so, he maintains that the way to do it—as his firm has done at the Folger—is to make buildings radically accessible. The physical world, Kieran says, offers total immersion: “It is what is left when we turn everything else off. It is the difference between reading Romeo and Juliet and watching it performed in a theater. The latter is immersive and plays upon all our senses and emotions—and it does so with others, in a communal experience.”

As for another immersion, I hope to see many of our readers, in person, at the AIA Conference in Washington, D.C., for discussion and drinks, for celebration, and even to air our grievances!