First, I wish you all a happy and healthy New Year.
We made it. Although a truism, it makes it no less important to observe that 2020 was a singularly difficult year, one of uncertainty, challenges, and change. In my last President’s Message, I wrote about a particularly significant shift for both the AIBC and architectural profession: the announcement of the transition from the Architects Act to the Professional Governance Act. With all the challenges of 2020 – from the pandemic to Act change – and as we enter 2021, one might ask: where do we go from here, and how do we get there?
The Public Perception
For me, one of the primary lessons the pandemic provided was a reminder of the value of expertise – look no further than the work, guidance, and knowledge given by our health officials. Over the past few years, however, I believe we have witnessed a decline in appreciation for professionals. This is a central challenge for professionals generally, as there exists an inherent tension between the prevailing decline in the value of expertise, and the obligations of professionals to practice with a minimum standard of care. Unfortunately, when it comes to the architectural profession, in my experience, the public consensus is that architects’ expertise resides primarily in (as newspapers use the word) design: that we are colour pickers and shape makers.
I imagine most architects have even lost track of how much more complex their work has become over the years, with the multitude of changes in building codes, regulations, technology, and cultural norms. If the increasing complexity of building is at least partly lost on architects, it is understandable that the public would be at least equally so. This makes sense given that the public only has access to the final product, but it is heartening to note that this does not stop their enthusiasm and appreciation for architecture. There are many buildings and spaces across the province that are well-loved and well-used. The recent renovation to šxʷƛ̓ənəq Xwtl’e7énḵ Square (formerly the Vancouver Art Gallery North Plaza) is a good example – giving, and game to a variety of uses; and Vancouver Convention Centre West, regularly used by professionals, and easily accessible to the public for a variety of activities. Both are popular and appreciated, but it is impossible for the public to know all of the choices and physical components that comprised their design or execution. The central challenge then, is not lack of interest, but the absence of a common language between architectural professionals and the public.
Over the past several years, there has also been a clear shift in values and a better understanding of critical building elements – such as energy requirements, accessibility, water conservation, and durability. Equally, there is an expectation for architectural professionals to show leadership and guidance on important societal matters, from environmental sustainability to equity, diversity, and inclusion. The key takeaway from this shift is that it shows an increase of understanding in how architecture relates, impacts and interacts with society. This is extremely positive – now, more than ever, we have the opportunity and capacity to shape public discourse.
2021 and Beyond
So, this brings me to the question I posed earlier in the message – what’s next?
For the AIBC, under the auspices of the Professional Governance Act and Ministry of Attorney General, the architectural profession in British Columbia will adopt a modern regulatory framework that will address the challenges stemming from our current archaic legislation. Since the announcement in July 2020, the Institute has completed the first phase of the transition and has moved under the Ministry of Attorney General. We will continue to work with the Office of the Superintendent of Professional Governance in preparing for the next stages, including developing a reasonable timeline for the eventual designation under the PGA (late 2021 or early 2022, as per their transition letter). Once completed, the profession will be aligned with current societal and governmental expectations and standards, and the AIBC will be able to more effectively regulate in the public’s interest. With the Institute under the same umbrella legislation as our allied professions, there will be greater consistency across the built environment, and this unity serves an opportunity for the public to better understand self-regulation. And while the Professional Governance Act clearly outlines the regulator’s role – to regulate registrants, and serve and protect the public interest – the profession can continue to bridge the language gap, both through our own dealings and with the many advocacy avenues available across the province and nation.
We have the opportunity to rebuild a common language with the public – not meaning popular media’s concept of a design language, but a language that admits the complexities and responsibilities of the profession: that our primary duty is the safety and wellbeing of the public; that our work necessarily demands trade-offs and the coordination of stakeholder priorities; that we aspire to improve the future with work that will outlast its current environmental, cultural, and economic context.
We are the discipline’s best ambassadors: speaking plainly to people about how the width of a drive aisle dictated the slope of the entry ramp, or how weeks of study yielded a room that feels just so, and I encourage us all to continue this conversation with the members of the public whom we serve. There are also many active organizations and initiatives who are championing the profession: Rise for Architecture, which aims to foster a shared awareness of the value of quality planning and development, as well as its benefit to society; the Architecture Foundation of British Columbia, whose mandate is to make architecture and design more accessible by promoting awareness and excellence; as well as the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada – our national advocacy body. These are all places where we can get involved and continue this important conversation. I can’t profess to have all answers or that I have made new claims here, only that society is built on a series of conversations and that a common language is essential for us to collectively develop a coherent story for cities and communities across the province.
This is the end of my term as AIBC Council President, and I am encouraged to see legislative modernization taking place that better aligns with both professional and societal standards. It is a satisfying ending to my time as president, especially as it establishes a framework that I am confident will be useful and productive in our increasingly complex and interconnected world.
I wish you all continued health and prosperity for 2021 and beyond.
Ian Ross McDonald Architect AIBC, AAA, NWTAA, OAA
AIBC Council President