Clark D. Manus, FAIA, 2011 President
William Stewart Photography Clark D. Manus, FAIA, 2011 President

It’s been 14 years since the AIA held a convention in New Orleans. Back then, the AIA pioneered the concept of leaving something of value behind for the host city. What emerged was a shelter for the homeless consisting of a series of green pavilions on seven acres of land.

In the ensuing decade and a half, New Orleanians have seen some of the most wrenching chapters written in the city’s long history. Fourteen years ago, visiting architects focused their creative energies on one piece of this city’s tapestry: the homeless population. Today, the events of the recent past demand a broader view. In response, our focus at the AIA Convention in May pulls back to take in not only the city itself, but the entire region. At issue is not a single thread of the city’s tapestry, but the continuing vitality of the entire urban and regional fabric.

True, the business and entertainment districts are once again booming. The tourists have returned and the great restaurants, along with the music scene, pulse with renewed life. Yet the soul of the city and the region is greater than the sum of the economic forces that feed it. The soul is its people.

Here, the tapestry remains frayed. Although many residents have returned, the current population is still well below pre-Hurricane Katrina levels. And as last summer’s disaster in the Gulf made clear, residents go about their daily business with the uneasy feeling that their homes are vulnerable to the next natural or human-induced disaster.

The hopeful and, in some cases, truly inspirational news this year’s convention attendees will discover is about architects (whose work is primarily residential) who are making an important contribution to healing the region’s soul. Historic homes are being saved from the wrecking ball, and the region also has become an incubator of extraordinary innovation in new residential design. This is happening at the very time that much of the housing market in the rest of the nation is gasping for breath.

This time, the design legacy of the 2011 National Convention and Design Exposition in New Orleans will not be left in the host city. Rather, it will exist in the lessons architects take back home about how their creativity can preserve the best of the past, push the boundaries of innovation, and—in doing both—bring a region’s soul back to life.

Clark D. Manus, FAIA, 2011 President