AIA At 150

March 23, 2007
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GRAND RAPIDS — In 1857, Grand Rapids comprised about 10.5 square miles and had been a municipality for just seven years. It wasn’t even known yet as the Furniture City. The Dutch in the area were the original immigrants from The Netherlands.

That’s when 49 New York City architects, laboring in what was then a little known and little respected field, organized the American Institute of Architects.

Today the AIA boasts more than 80,000 members and chapters across the country. The Grand Valley chapter, which covers West Michigan, claims nearly 250 members, said Chapter President Nate Gillette, architect for Bazzani Associates in Grand Rapids.

AIA’s architecture professionals have influenced not only individual buildings, but cityscapes across America. In 1899, the AIA opened its headquarters in Washington, D.C., and became especially influential in the city’s national architecture, choosing, for example, the location and design of the Washington Monument.

Along the way, the AIA has struggled as a group with issues with which Americans are familiar: women’s rights, the environment, diversity, the Great Depression, wars and technology. Now the AIA is celebrating its 150th anniversary by giving gifts to America.

“The whole idea of AIA150 is that the AIA is actually giving a gift out to the citizens of America. We’re doing public service projects as a way to give something back to the community,” Gillette said.

The Grand Valley chapter began with about 20 members who split off from the larger Southwest Michigan chapter in 1964, said Harry Terpstra, AIA, of Terpstra Design Associates in Grand Rapids and a former state chapter president. The chapter covers 11 counties and includes Grand Rapids, Holland and Muskegon.

“This is probably one of the most involved chapters in a lot of areas,” Terpstra said. “It’s held as a model by national. There’s a lot to be proud of, what architects locally have been doing.”

As part of its celebration, the Grand Valley chapter is conducting a charrette next month at the Pinnacle Center in Hudsonville. The charrette will gather all the stakeholders in a particular area — municipalities, property owners and landscape architects, as well as architects — to envision a new future for a problem area.

“We’ve even got a plan to carry this on even further for more years ahead,” Gillette said.

Also on tap is a guidebook to architectural gems in the Grand Rapids, Muskegon and Holland area, which will be available to the public (see related story)

Chapter members also are working with local nonprofit Disability Advocates to do a study of accessibility in public areas and to develop standards for accessible housing. Gillette said he expects that work to continue throughout the year.

In April, the chapter will host the annual Honor Awards to recognize members for outstanding work. The event will feature a guest speaker. AIAGV also has established a $1,000 scholarship for students in accredited architecture programs.

Gillette said the chapter hosts monthly lunch meetings and is planning several bigger evening sessions twice a year. He said the meetings can count toward the continuing education credits required to maintain AIA membership, although the state of Michigan does not require continuing education for licensure.

The group also has scheduled several social occasions, such as a golf outing that raises money for Habitat for Humanity and a day trip to the Santiago Calatrava-designed Milwaukee Art Museum, Gillette said.

He said that about half of licensed architects are AIA members. “We see that as quite unfortunate. The AIA is the only professional organization looking after the well-being of the architectural career,” Gillette said.

Gillette said the industry also is grappling with a drop in the number of architecture graduates. Locally, no colleges offer a full program in architecture, but pre-architecture and design are available through Ferris State University and its Kendall College of Art and Design, as well as through Calvin College and Grand Rapids Community College, Gillette said.

AIA membership is available to licensed architects, he added, as well as to associate members such as students or others who work closely with architects. For more information, visit www.aiagv.net on the Web.    

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