The Good, The Bad, and The Ice Cream Sandwiches

A recap of AIA Convention 2013

By Raymond Bowman Posted on July 11, 2013

Editor’s note: While you may have noticed that Columns has already featured Ray exploring his experiences with the AIA Convention’s Keynote Addresses, we are highlighting him again with a recap of the 2013 National Convention in Denver, where he talks about the classes, the Expo, and the city. Any and all opinions expressed are those solely of the author.


The AIA Convention is probably as well-attended as it is primarily because of all of the classes that are offered. Sure the Expo is impressive, the keynotes are inspiring, and the opportunity to network is unmatched by any other event, but the classes are really invaluable. Professional architects need a certain amount of “continuing education credits” (CECs) in order to maintain their license. As a lowly intern architect, I don’t “need” these classes per se, but I decided to take a deeper dive into them this year anyway just to see what it was all about.

I’m going to sound really negative about the classes and I don’t really mean to. I get the value of them, and I probably could have minimized my wasted time at these classes by reading the course descriptions and learning about the presenters. As it was, I read the zingy titles and picked out ones that sounded interesting and useful and pretty much got burned. That’s my bad, and I’ll own it.

My first choice was “Teaching Architects to Teach”…. Maybe I’m especially bitter because I had to choose between it and a class about designing small communities, another interest of mine lately fueled by my reading of “The Geography of Nowhere”. Maybe I was a fool to think that anyone could ever successfully navigate the three-ringed labyrinth that is trying to teach people how to teach students architecture. “Good architecture” is subjective, as is “good teaching”, so any discussion of how to teach to teach is bound to get pretty wonky. The class may very well have been doomed from the start, but the presenters didn’t do themselves any favors with the structure. There was a bizarre twenty minute stretch where different generations of architects were arbitrarily assigned generic traits and historic waypoints. The last half of the class involved us looking at projects and being invited to offer criticism based on minimal knowledge of the project and presentation. After looking at three projects like this, it was revealed that they were preliminary sketches or unbuilt projects by people like Louis Kahn and Le Corbusier, two famous architects. If you haven’t tried yet, spoiler alert: it’s really difficult to criticize two of the greatest architectural thinkers ever. People spend years writing doctorate theses about it. Maybe not the best subject material for a ninety minute intro class, eh?

Next was “Retail Design Around the World”, which I took because I do a lot of retail design these days. I don’t do any international work, but it was interesting to learn about how the process of working in another country is different. A lot of thought goes into analyzing local customs and considering what the culture will accept or reject. I had a lot of “huh” moments about things I hadn’t thought about before, but I didn’t learn anything I could use tomorrow. I felt the same way about a course I took called “Sustainability in Retail Architecture”. There were some good ideas discussed regarding sustainability, but both retailers they brought in (Kohl’s and TD Bank) deal in huge volumes and large, detached buildings. I do a lot of tenant fitouts (spaces that you would see in a mall), which is a completely different scale. I can’t really recommend a client install electric car charging stations or white roof material if we don’t really have a say in the parking or the roof. Oh well.

“Religion, Art and Architecture” was probably the best class I attended. I was expecting something of a round-table discussion about the intersection between those three, but instead three architects presented individual projects that dealt with them. This would have been great if each of these case studies was like, 10 minutes long, and then there was a half hour to discuss, but instead the case studies took up the whole hour. They were really interesting projects, though, so in that respect this class was surprisingly good. Designing a church or a mausoleum is something I’ve never done professionally or even in school, and it seems like it would be a fun challenge. The projects discussed were the Tirana Mosque by BIG, the Temple Beth Elohim by William Rawn Associates, and the Lakewood Cemetery Garden Mausoleum by HGA.

The Expo

Image from the Sundolier website.

Image from the Sundolier website.

The Expo floor is always a really exciting place. There’s a lot of energy there, not to mention free coffee, alcohol, and tape measures. Oh, and useful products.

What do you think this thing is? I think it looks like some kind of satellite, and to an extent it is. But instead of collecting TV or radio signals, it collects light and shoots it into a tube. At the other end of the tube the light is diffused again, lighting up a huge area like a gym or open office. It’s super cool, right? I just kind of wish it looked cooler on the roof.

I saw some more “artisan” type stuff there this year than last. There was a woman who did fused art glass and a guy that made a custom table for the Emerging Professionals Booth.

expo_parasoleilHere is a high-end product for you. My guess is these are the first things to get value-engineered (VE’d, if you want to sound hip), but they look cool while they’re in the project. Parasoleil has some really nice panels for a good-looking canopy. I really am fascinated by shadows, and half the fun of these things is the cool shadow pattern they create.

Best booth award time! There were a bunch of cool-looking booths, but Prescient had a second story and a balcony, so it wins.


16th_Street_Mall_from_D&F_TowerMy favorite thing about the AIA Convention is the opportunity to explore another city. This was my first time ever in Denver, and my first time anywhere between San Francisco and Chicago. I didn’t get to explore as wide an area of the city as I did last year in DC (no car this time around), but Denver was easily as entertaining nonetheless. I really didn’t even miss the lack of car being as how close by everything was, at least downtown. A big part of what makes downtown Denver so walkable is the 16th Street Mall. Designed by I.M. Pei, the 16th St Mall runs straight through the heart of downtown for over a mile and is closed to general traffic. A free shuttle runs from end to end. The middle of the street has lighting, shops, tables, greenery, artists and buskers. Each side of the street is lined with shops and restaurants for the entire length. If you’ve ever parked downtown to go to a Pirate’s game or marched in a parade, you know how powerful the experience of safely sharing a road usually meant for cars with other pedestrians. I had read about instances where cities had reclaimed certain merchant corridors for foot traffic, but had never been to one. I don’t know what 16th St was like before the mall was built (way back in 1982), but I can say that today it’s enormously vibrant.

I checked out the Denver Art Museum and Daniel Libeskind’s recent addition to the museum. The DAM interior was way better (in my humble opinion) than the DAM exterior. I’m generally very skeptical of buildings that have extreme canted walls, because they usually create very awkward spaces on the inside. There were awkward spaces in the DAM, but they were utilized pretty well. They wouldn’t be great for displaying art, but they made for good little nooks that had kids’ craft areas and such. Also, the circulation core was really something to see. (And while we are on the subject of art, an interesting aspect of Denver is that developers must devote a portion of their budget to public art when they build on a piece of land downtown.)peteybird-ice-cream-bike

Although mostly ill-advised, I also ventured off the beaten path. Ultimately I was handsomely rewarded for the somewhat unnerving walk through a creepy neighborhood when I came across a brewery that had a tap room and gave tours. After a tour and a few pints from the Great Divide, I happened to look out the window to see what might have been my favorite thing in Denver: a guy selling homemade ice cream sandwiches out of his bike/cooler.

Refreshed by beer and ice cream, I headed all the way back to the other side of downtown to check out Larimer square, followed by dinner at Euclid Hall. It may be impossible to get a bad meal in Denver. Bad service, yes, or maybe a meal not worth the price, but a bad meal, no.

That’s it for Denver, for now and for good. I hope you liked the tour because I have about enough energy for one of these a year.

Raymond Bowman is an Intern Architect at Lami Grubb Architects, but all views, opinions, and grammatical errors in this commentary are his own. He publishes a weekly blog and a monthly podcast for your reading and/or listening pleasure.

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