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AIA: Opening Comments, Thoughts & Photos on AIA National in Chicago

An early look at AIA National in Chicago and the ideas and trends that are coming into focus

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After a whirlwind trip out to the midwest and back for AIA National in Chicago, I finally arrived back in Boston early Sunday. This year, despite the location, attendance at AIA from the perspective of who hosted a booth at the Exposition in the software category seemed a bit down from Denver. For example, there was no Hewlett-Packward booth with all their new wide-format printers. And the folks at Robert McNeel & Associates (Rhino) have not returned to the show in years. Was this still a sign of an unsure US economy or a reflection of a couple of key companies? I’m not really sure.

One thing that was clear to me however was that Chicago is a great place to host the AIA National Convention. And the convention center and hotel selection was excellent. But let’s not forget the city. When asked the question of what gallery or exhibition in Chicago not to miss while in town—a question posed in the local AIA architecture magazine—famed architect Helmut Jahn said the city itself is the city’s best exhibition.  Naturally I took that advice. And with the help of a trusted and good friend in Chicago architect William Huchting of makeArchitecture, I spent many hours exploring the city and its suburbs. (more on that later!)

Conversations and Trends Trump Products

This year I would say that the conversations I had with various software vendors and their executives, trumped the array of new product announcements. On my arrival day on Thursday, Autodesk hosted its Innovation Forum and there was an interesting presentation by the folks at CASE, followed by a dinner for press.

At the Innovation Forum a lot of focus was placed on computation and data and its role in design decision-making. Autodesk is clearly aware of the growing trend in which many of the top tier design firms, and larger firms, are using data and computation to distinguish themselves against their competition. After all, it is no longer enough to be a BIM firm or to have advanced 3D renderings and animations. And while the majority of practices may be saying, “Hey! wait a minute, I’m not even transitioned to BIM?” those who have been undertaking that transition for years have moved on—or are moving on—to different computational areas. The net result of this is an growing interest in front-ending analytics.

01 - The Graphisoft Breakfast Event featured a brief talk about CEO Viktor Varkonyi, plus a detailed over-view of the new ArchiCAD 18.

01 – The Graphisoft Breakfast Event featured a brief talk from CEO Viktor Varkonyi, plus a detailed over-view of the new ArchiCAD 18.

Now, while such emphasis may have been impressed upon the audience at Autodesk’s Innovation Forum, I wish to remind readers that I made note of Altair Engineering’s appearance at AIA National last year with computational fluid dynamics (CFD) software (pre-release) and a backstory about their work with SOM and high-rises.

MORE: AIA: Notes on Altair’s appearance at AIA and solidThinking 9.5 

Products and technologies that bring traditionally computationally heavy analysis up front to the beginning of the architectural design process are going to grow in significance. Both progress in software and hardware engineering and the scale of the cloud with grid technologies makes this possible.

Another key trend discussed at the Innovation Forum was “big data.” How architects can both access and utilize what is known as “big data” in their design processes will continually evolve over the next decade. This is especially important for urban development. Yet, the show was devoid of any truly meaningful new software or solutions to this new trend. Don’t get me wrong, there are people and companies all over this. And for good reason. It’s just very early stage. And even more importantly, the architects who can engage in this at this stage aren’t likely a big group.

02 - Autodesk hosted the Party at the Wit Hotel in downtown Chicago on State Street within the Loop. Lively and outside on the roof well attended invite only event featured many interesting people and conversations.

02 – Autodesk hosted the Party at the Wit in downtown Chicago on State Street within the Loop. Lively and outside on the roof the well attended invite only event featured many interesting people and conversations.

As usual the AIA National Convention is a great place to network and meet people from across the country and even abroad. The exchange of ideas and creativity is inspiring for all.

Yet, stepping out into the landscape that is the city of Chicago, I couldn’t help but feel inspired by the masters of the past. Atwood, Sullivan, Wright, Mies and newer works continually reminded me that all this computer technology isn’t the reason why I became an architect in the first place. I wondered, as I walked through homes by FLW and past the inspiring Marina City towers, what might happen to the role of imagination in the era of BIM and analytics? How will it change? By what measures can we assure the future of the profession that this critical capacity doesn’t get lost—get lost in all the technology and determinism?

03 - An AIA National in Chicago without field trips out to see the wonderful architecture—as part of AIA sessions or all on your own—would not be huge missed opportunity. That certainly didn't happen. Here is a view of Marina City Towers looking up at night. The area around the Loop at night is gorgeous.

03 – An AIA National in Chicago without field trips out to see the wonderful architecture—as part of AIA sessions or all on your own—would be a huge missed opportunity. That certainly didn’t happen for me! Here is a view of Marina City Towers looking up at night. The area around the Loop at night is gorgeous.

Look for more AIA National Convention coverage all through this week and possibly into next.

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