The Role of Urban Design: Q&A with Clark Manus

Recently elected AIA President Clark Manus talks to MHN about the role architecture and design have in urban communities.

Clark Manus, FAIA, CEO of Heller Manus Architects, was recently elected as president of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) by its nearly 80,000 members. Manus has served on the AIA board and was most recently its national vice president. Now that he’s moved in to his new role, he talks to MHN about the role he sees architecture and design having in communities.

MHN: You said you “look forward to integrating the innovative power of design in forging a coherent whole that balances seemingly conflicting issues.” Can you expand on that?

Manus: With the buildings that we do in San Francisco—we do a lot of high-rise residential—it’s really about finding out what the issues are, what the conflicts are, and looking at it in a way that hopefully will satisfy the overwhelming majority of people in terms of the concerns they might have about the way projects fit into context.

I’ll give you an example from my undergraduate training in Buffalo. It was an environmental design program, which was pretty innovative in its approach to looking at design as a “problem-solving” approach initially rather than leaping to the conclusion that [the solution] is always a building. The dean of that school … headed the AIA Research Corporation, and the approach in that program was really … that the architect is a trusted advisor in understanding the building process.

So for me, design is a process of trying to aggregate the various pieces. You end up with lots of consultants. Whether it’s developing an innovative structural system or a building that is pushing towards the limits of sustainability, they’re all really a part of that.

MHN: You mentioned high-rise residential. What is your agenda for apartments and other multiple dwellings?

Manus: When looking at housing opportunities, people [desire] to be part of the urban core. In terms of lifestyle changes people are seeking now in where they live—close to urban centers, close to transportation, close to amenities—they’re all parts of what I see ultimately becoming a better model. Our firm’s portfolio is almost overwhelmingly urban and high-density. I see that as key to residential having its viability, particularly as the population ages … and also in terms of the younger generation and things they believe are important to their lifestyle changes.

MHN: What specific things do you hope AIA is able to accomplish now that you’re at the helm?

Manus: One of the things I’ve been working toward is building more effective alliances with organizations that have common interests—organizations like the USGBC, the Urban Land Institute, the Association of Landscape Architects or the American Planning Association. … That’s really part of the dynamic in making sure that we have “actionable” things.

Putting the word design back into the vocabulary for the Institute is also something that’s important. Design is really something that differentiates a well-thought-out idea and something that’s holistically seen.

MHN: What have you seen at the cutting edge of design that has excited you?

Manus: The most exciting thing that I think has merit is this aspiration to net-zero. It’s a huge challenge. I think the whole notion of trying to get beyond the rhetoric of the word “sustainability” to really talking about energy efficiency is what the public needs to be able to embrace. We all want future generations to be able to live in healthier communities.

Having walkable communities is another important notion in terms of people’s health. I had a remarkable conversation with someone I’m working with who’s a big infrastructure developer. He was on a panel for infrastructure in Europe, and he said to me, “Why is the U.S. not innovating in ways that Europe and Asia are relative to transportation and walkable communities?” And I said, I’m baffled. If you go back in time and look at some of the things we did 50 years ago that were cutting-edge, we’ve now become overly cautious.

I think the further maturation and embrace of energy efficiency, alternative energy, energy independence, and walkable and dense communities—those for me are part of the more exciting dialogue.

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