The International Union of Architects (L’Union Internationale des Architectes, or UIA) holds a world congress for architects every three years in different cities to debate their common concerns and interests. I found myself spending 40 hours on planes to South Africa (it seems that New Zealand isn’t the only country that takes absolutely forever to reach from just about anywhere else in the world, but I also suppose that it’s all a matter of perspective, as Africans would disagree) last month as a New Zealand delegate this year, after being gently coaxed into it by my long-time mentors, Tony and Dory, then with subsequent thumbs-up by the NZIA and the UIA. I had been curious about what the UIA was all about and had been planning to go back in 2011 when it was held in Tokyo, but ultimately missed out because we were busy hosting Cameron Sinclair at the time (as you probably recall from this article). Funnily enough, I never seem to be too far from Cameron’s world-changing exploits, as he was one of the main keynote speakers at this year’s world congress.
And why do a post about something that happened last month? Well, for two reasons. One, I am due to be presenting this topic to a NZ audience a couple of times this week so I wanted to have some additional info available in case anyone makes it this far. Two, I actually considered blogging directly from Africa, but given the lack of time I decided to go the higher impact route by tweeting around the clock and contributing directly to the NZIA Facebook page where more architects are likely to see it. Although I’m not a regular tweeter, I’ve rediscovered the novelty of following hashtags of live events where there’s a high probability of smartphone users as a convenient way to be in multiple places at the same time and hearing different perspectives when you can logistically only be in one place.
This is only the second time that the congress has been hosted in the southern hemisphere, and this year’s congress theme, ‘architecture otherwhere’ sought to present alternative views of architecture in response to the urgent global housing crisis, unemployment and geopolitical issues. Challenging architectural hegemonies and ideologies, the 25th UIA congress in Durban put forward a distinctly African lens to explore how architects might play a central role in alleviating poverty and social inequalities.
So what is the big deal about the UIA? What’s that all about? I must say the UIA doesn’t do a whole lot of marketing outside of its organization given that I’ve only heard about it in the last 5 years when I began my research about the wider impact of architecture in society. The UIA is essentially a non-governmental global network of architectural associations founded in 1948 (purports to be the world’s oldest professional organization – and they are technically right in that they were founded shortly after the United Nations were formed) to unite the architects of the world without discrimination. As an oldest global professional organization, the UIA has since grown to encompass the key professional organizations of architects in over 120 countries representing close to 1,300,000 architects worldwide. And that’s no small feat!
The triennial congress usually spans 3-4 days, and is immediately followed by the General Assembly. The GA is basically one extended meeting of all member nations, and lasts for another 3 days (as you can imagine, trying to hold a meeting of 200 people in the room is not a simple endeavor). The meeting consists of the UIA Bureau, including the Council members from each of the five territorial regions (New Zealand and Australia are part of Region IV), the work programme chairs, and most importantly the UIA’s member country representatives. The General Assembly is also amicably referred to as “the United Nations of Architects”. The UIA GA involvements are largely voluntary and are separate from the congress.
Much like the UN Assembly, the member countries gather to discuss and vote on any amendments to the UIA’s charter and bylaws, and the number of votes cast is determined by the number of licensed practitioners in each region and evenly distributed based on the total number of architects around the world (for instance, New Zealand has 1,700 registered architects and are eligible for 2 votes, while Australia has 11,000 architects and can cast 5 votes). The key issues from this year, apart from the elections of the UIA leaders for the next 3 years and the selection of the host for the 2020 world congress, were the 2050 Declaration announcement and the Gaza motion to cease all architectural activities on contentious lands.
New Zealand has maintained positive working relations with the UIA Bureau and the Region IV Council over the years through active participation by previous NZIA Presidents and architects who have lead various work programs, and it’s hard to discuss NZ’s involvement without mentioning Tony. Tony is a well-known figure in NZ (most recently starring as a protagonist in the documentary Tumanako/Hope) has been involved with the UIA since 1987, whose activities have included co-founding of ARC-PEACE (an umbrella org of ADPSR in the US), effectively leading the sustainability movement in architecture. Tony’s global influence knows no bounds yet while at home in New Zealand he is a humble self-builder with a passion for sharing all that he knows with the world, especially the young folks.
Apart from that the Institute also has a close relationship with the UIA’s Past President Louise Cox (Australia) and the Incumbent President Esa Mohammed (Malaysia) through the members’ involvement at the UIA and APEC Architects, where New Zealand currently holds a position on the Secretariat.
What made this year’s congress and General Assembly particularly special was the fact that this was the first time in the organization’s 66 year history that young people were actively integrated and involved at all levels. This is not at all surprising given the recent trends of ever increasing attrition of architectural graduates to other industries due in part to the sluggish pace at which the architectural profession has (not) been evolving. Generational gap seems to be something of an issue for an organization that also happens to be one of the oldest. In the last couple of years, however, the UIA has tried to close this gap by more actively engaging the younger generation by tapping into Social Media and establishment of what’s called the committee of Young Architects and Students to address the issues from young professionals’ perspective. The committee, tentatively made up of one representative from member countries in each of the 5 UIA regions will be spending the next year sorting itself out.
Ultimately, the UIA presents a unique and unparalleled global platform where architects can have a strong influence on the direction of the architectural profession. Unlike most other international conferences, the UIA, through its congress and the General Assembly, is geared towards action and long lasting partnership with not just other professional organisations of architects but also international multilaterals such as the UN and WHO. Over the next 3 years, NZIA has a great opportunity to work with newly elect leaders from the UIA bureau and regional council that already have positive working relationship with our members. First, there is a strong sense that the centre of architectural influence is gravitating towards Asia and to some extent the southern hemisphere nations (Rio will be hosting the 2020 congress), and this gives NZIA a chance to form strong bilateral partnerships with neighbouring countries to complement our involvement in APEC and the CAA. Second, the geographic proximity to the next congress in Seoul will enable more members to attend, and as such, discussions are already underway for the New Zealand delegation to build stronger relationship with Korea (who we’ve been trying to establish an FTA deal with for a good part of the last decade). Third, the congress gives architects a unique way to experience another culture from uniquely architectural perspective, it is a mecca of innovative ideas, a showcase for emerging architecture, and finally, a place to make friends from all corners of the world.
The next world congress is in Seoul, South Korea, in 2017.
This time, we want a delegation of at least 40 architects and students. At the time of writing this we have a firm commitment from 8 (that is already at 20%). Are you in?