Blake Mycoskie AIA 2013
Photo by Architectural Record
Blake Mycoskie, founder of the shoe company Toms, delivers the opening keynote talk at AIA 2013.

“When you incorporate giving into your business, your customers—or in your case, your clients—become your best marketers.” That was the advice that keynote speaker Blake Mycoskie, founder of Toms shoes, gave to the crowd at this morning’s kickoff session for the American Institute of Architects’ annual conference. The socially minded and affably scruffy entrepreneur recounted his winding and unusual career path for the audience seated in a theater at the Denver convention center.

Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects AIA 2013
Photo by Architectural Record
Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects receives the Firm of the Year award and gets a standing ovation from the crowd.

He spoke about starting an online driver’s education business—while admitting the concept sounds absurd—and coming in a close second as a contestant on the reality television series The Amazing Race before founding Toms, his successful shoe brand. The company, which touts its “one-for-one” business model, donates a pair of shoes to an impoverished child for every purchase of its canvas footwear. That story caught the interest of the media when he founded the company in 2006, and it has helped it grow to the point, Mycoskie said, that Toms has given away 10 million pairs of shoes to children around the world as of last Thursday. The narrative has turned his customers into evangelists, he said, adding, architects can also give their clients a good story as they strive for social good in their work.

Mycoskie was preceded by a series of announcements by AIA officials that showed the organization trying to change its own narrative. The institute’s CEO (former Architectural Record editor in chief) Robert Ivy detailed a series of “repositioning” efforts, including bringing in a consultancy to recommend ways to streamline the institute’s organizational structure. But the biggest news was AIA president Mickey Jacob’s official announcement—reported yesterday by Architectural Record—that the national board of directors has voted to allow the Gold Medal, the organization’s highest honor, to be awarded to two people in recognition of collaborative practices. The move comes on the heels of last week’s statement by the current Pritzker Prize jury that it would not retroactively bestow its award on Denise Scott Brown, who was excluded from the prize when her husband and partner received it in 1991.

The crowd applauded the Gold Medal announcement, but it gave a standing ovation to Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects when the firm’s partners took the stage to receive this year’s AIA Firm of the Year Award. The story of their practice has had its share of twists in the past year. The firm has seen the triumphant opening of several celebrated projects, including the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia and the Asia Society in Hong Kong, but it has also witnessed the threat to demolish its building for the American Folk Art Museum, the project that first brought national attention to the firm. Receiving the award against that backdrop, Billie Tsien remained undaunted, telling the audience of architects, “Everyone in this room is a confirmed optimist.”