Benjamin Burnside
Credit: Benjamin Burnside
Contributed by:
Jeff Potter
FAIA

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Why AIA Matters

In life, the quality of a relationship is a function not of what you get from it, but what you give to it. Gratification trumps satisfaction. I feel like my experience as a member of the American Institute of Architects is proof.

I was a member of a small, all-volunteer AIA chapter in another part of the state for 27 years. The structure, offerings, and opportunities were nothing like those available to members of AIA Dallas, which I joined in 2008. As a small firm owner (not having the benefit of a large firm’s “university”), I gravitated towards engagement with the Texas Society of Architects, where life-long learning and fellowship opportunities were plentiful, if at a distance.

Learning and leading at TSA and the AIA National Component have given me a more nuanced perspective on the purpose of a professional organization in this country. What does it mean to be in architect? What does the profession mean to culture? 

Is it ink on a diploma or a certificate?

Is it the advancement of a sustainable practice?

Advancing culture through built works?

Perhaps a calling to serve our community through vision?

I believe democracy and design go hand in hand – a lesson I’ve learned the hard way is that the machine is operated by the people who show up. Advocating for the profession is not my particular joy, but taking a stand for our profession has shown me that a profession must have a considered purpose, schema, and ethical posture to claim its cultural territory. This is unlikely to happen by way of a degree or a constellation of more or less virtuous practitioners. These things must be shaped, proclaimed, and maintained.

We all see the Institute from our individual perspectives. I have had the incredible fortune to see it from high altitude; globally, you might say. We have our blemishes, but there is simply no other entity that compares in local, state, national, and international effect. And, we do this while balancing interests and altruism – double tough. 

In 158 years, AIA has proven to possess a substantial timelessness – an aspect that architects desperately desire in design and, I would think, in their relationships. The AIA is, for me, a place of opportunity. And in an era of ever-shifting values and meaning, I continue to get more than I give. 

Jeff Potter, FAIA is vice president of Potter Architects and served as the 2012 president of The American Institute of Architects.