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March 4, 2008
by Rick Bell FAIA Executive Director AIA New York

We all learned from some top word-warriors, including General Henry Shelton, the retired Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who defined leadership in no uncertain terms. Giving the concluding keynote speech to a standing ovation on Saturday, February 23, the General used humor and cowboy analogies to make points about the qualities of decisiveness, loyalty, courage, and ethics that characterize great leaders. His one-liners were grabbers: “The higher you climb on the flagpole, the more your butt shows,” for example. But the overarching theme, of “riding for the brand” reinforced the sense of the AIA’s coherent vision. It was especially poignant that the AIA was founded on February 23, 1857, a fact that was noted in exactly none of the speeches that I heard.

Candidates for AIA office — including our own George Miller, FAIA, running for 2010 AIA President — gave forth with the most affecting and effective oratory. Often those voting at the AIA Convention know the candidates only from these small snippets. The hotel’s basement bar allowed late night discussion of the merits of their speeches, while the back-bar television showed Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama trying to make words count in real time. At other watering holes, from the Hotel Monaco’s Poste Bar to Zahtinya, the AIA candidate speeches were sliced and diced as to content and passion. Hesselbein’s concept of dispersed leadership (“leadership of the future, taking people out of the boxes of the organizational chart and relating them to each other in a structure that is circular”) was discussed all over town, including the round Nest Bar at the Willard during the lunar eclipse.

The shortest major speech was that of Piano, accepting the AIA’s Gold Medal from David Thurm, AIA Public Board Member and Senior VP of the New York Times. After his dramatic start, Piano defined architecture: “Architecture is adventure spent at the frontier between art and science, a kind of contaminated art, happily contaminated by life, which makes it more real. It is also a dangerous art because if you do something wrong it is dangerous for people.” During his speech, the projected images of the New York Times building (done in collaboration with FXFOWLE Architects and Gensler) and the Morgan Library (with Beyer Blinder Belle Architects & Planners), spoke for the big picture collaborative AIA theme, “We, The People.”

This collective “We” was, at last, correctly attributed not to Thomas Jefferson but to James Madison. The collaborative aspect of the entire Grassroots conference resonated through every speech. Hesselbein said, “We must challenge the gospel of the status quo, keeping only those strategies and policies that are relevant to the future, to this new world that architects and their partners will build. We must get our house in order, and I can say house, because you are familiar with the term.” She continued: “The day of the Lone Ranger is gone. We require alliances, partnerships, and collaboration.”

President-elect Marvin J. Malecha, FAIA, who organized the Grassroots conference with Component Partnerships Director Pat Harris called Hesselbein’s remarks “a call to action.” AIA President Marshall E. Purnell, FAIA, quoted Ralph Bunche to thank Hesselbein, saying “Hearts are strongest when they beat in response to noble ideas.” Hesselbein, who had last addressed the AIA in 1998, suggested that 10 years hence the Institute call her back to the podium.

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