An Architect with Designs for Social Activism

By Sands, Ellen | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), January 26, 1997 | Go to article overview

An Architect with Designs for Social Activism


Sands, Ellen, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


Washington architect Raj Barr-Kumar has one short year and two big priorities.

As the new president of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), Mr. Barr-Kumar's objectives are to create an inside-outside combination that will change how society thinks about architects and how architects think about themselves.

On the outside - how the profession can serve society - Mr. Barr-Kumar is urging architects to take a more assertive role regarding homelessness, environmental protection and energy conservation.

"Today's challenges," he says in an interview, "include improving the quality of life in our inner cities and in our communities, providing affordable housing, bringing our cities back from the brink through design."

Architects have historically contributed their skills through programs such as Rural/Urban Design Assistance Teams, or R/UDAT, providing disaster relief after such catastrophes as the earthquake in Armenia and Florida's Hurricane Andrew and working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The difference, however, is that professional awards and design honors always went to such "high design" architects as Richard Meier, Pritzker Prize winner, architect of the Getty Center in Los Angeles and the recipient of the 1997 AIA Gold Medal, an award for career achievement. Not a lot of attention was paid to 600 units of affordable housing.

In his year as head of the AIA, the D.C.-based national professional association of architects, Mr. Barr-Kumar wants to change that.

"Social responsibility radiates design excellence," he says.

As to the inside plan - helping architects organize and represent themselves - Mr. Barr-Kumar initiated a revision of the standard AIA contract documents. These are the legal contracts between architects, owners and general contractors outlining responsibilities in the construction process.

Traditionally, architects maintained a defensive position in these contracts, in an effort to minimize liability should something go wrong during construction of their design. (The standing joke among young architects studying to pass the professional practice licensing exam is that on any multiple-choice question regarding liability, the correct answer is whichever one most relieves the architects of responsibility.)

Mr. Barr-Kumar seeks to "tweak the risk-reward ratio," as he puts it. To assume more control during the construction phase of a project, the architect is going to become more responsible for management of that project.

"Today's clients," says Mr. Barr-Kumar, "seek increased accountability and a wider array of services. The AIA is responding."

* * *

The AIA has been responding for 140 years. Founded in 1857, its objectives are to provide standards of education, training and practice for architects and to promote quality design, research and building technology . The president, elected by the 60,000-member body, serves for one year. Mr. Barr-Kumar is the first president in 40 years to come from Washington. …

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