22 June 2019

Frances Halsband FAIA Honorary Doctorate of Design and 2019 Commencement Address at The NewSchool of Architecture & Design

The NewSchool of Architecture & Design in San Diego awarded Frances Halsband with an Honorary Doctorate of Design and, was invited to give this year’s commencement address.

Read Frances’s encouraging words to Class of 2019

Commencement Address
for The NewSchool of Architecture & Design

It is a great honor to be here today celebrating with the Class of 2019! I am supposed to give you some advice about the future, some clues about what might come next. And I will. I have a list of three things you absolutely Should Not Do. And I also have a list of three things that you really Should Do.

First: Do not follow your dreams!

Leave the clouds to the internet. The world you are in, this one, the one we are sitting in right now, celebrating, in this magnificent room, is the place to be. The place to get something done. The place to grow and prosper, the place to create, interact, work, expand your powers and make amazing things happen! Go with the flow. Don’t go off somewhere to dream. Look around you. Your family and friends are right here, right now. You are a team, a collective, you can help and inspire each other. Right here, right now, you can make a difference, by engaging in everything around you. What happens happens here. You don’t want to miss it through inattention. Don’t follow your dreams.

Second: Do not plan your Career Path. Don’t waste time on your trajectory.

There is no such thing! No one can predict what is coming next. We cannot know what the opportunities will be. Planning a path to the unknown is a waste of time. How can you plan to be a computer scientist if computer science does not yet exist? Just get out there and do something. Watch and participate in the known, every minute. Look around you. Always say YES. Well, almost always. When an opportunity comes along, say YES.
Don’t think “Oh I can’t do that”. The person who just asked you thinks you can do it.
Say YES. Life is incremental. One thing leads to the next. It’s a chain, not a leap. At least, that’s how it is in my experience. Live in the present and be alert to every opportunity. One thing leads to another. Don’t plan your career path.

Third: You Do Not Belong. You are probably an outsider. Do not pretend that you belong!

I didn’t belong when I started out. Actually, I still don’t. There were very few women in architecture school, and very few in the profession. There were no kids from public school in the Bronx. But I had something that the people who belonged did not have. I had an outsider’s point of view. I could see things that they could not see. I could question what I saw. I could question whether there was a different way to do things. A better way.
I could bring something new to the dialogue, to the creative process, that was new and valuable. Never feel sorry for yourself because you do not belong. You are exactly the person that insiders need to hear from. There is a hunger for diversity in the world today.
Be diverse.

Okay. Now I come to a few things that you really should say yes to. Things you could and should do. Things you can start doing on Monday morning:

Design and Architecture are at the center of all things. These are creative professions. They are technical, and they are civic. The work is collaborative. It’s a model for many other things in life.

First: Enjoy your work.

You will probably be starting your first job. What are the people around you doing? Why are they doing things in that way? Is there a better way to do something? Explore, propose, interact. You are a creative person. Ask questions. You will learn why people do things their way, or maybe they will learn, from you, that there is another way. You will be working in a team. It’s not all up to you. Teams help each other. Design is not a competitive sport. Working together, bringing different points of view, different perceptions, makes the work better. Enjoy the mechanics, what we used to call draftsman’s victories, the small things that make a project sing.

Second: Think about how you can educate others

Pay it back. Yes, even now, even though you’ve only had a degree for a few minutes, you actually know things other people do not know. You have a different perspective, different skills. It’s already time for you to educate someone else. When you do that you will find out how you as a creative person can change the world. You might have a goal of teaching in an architecture or design school. Or you might just walk over to the local high school to see if you could volunteer to talk to a class. A few weeks ago, we invited a local girl scout troop to our office. We showed them around, answered questions, gave them boxes of material samples for their scout construction project. We had a wonderful time. The takeaway was that there are now a dozen ten year old girls who all want to be architects when they grow up.

Third: Do something that involves you in Civic life, in the life of the city around you.

You may have noticed almost everyone thinks that our nation, and maybe our world, is a big mess right now. People are choosing sides, battling about who is right.

Get involved. Get out of the office! Talk to people who are not designers or architects! As a designer, you are a translator. You are translating other people’s dreams Yes, they can have dreams. You have reality! You translate their dreams into reality. You are giving form to their values. You need to be able to communicate in ways that others, people who are not designers, people who are not involved in making things, will understand. Some of the mysterious language of design that you have learned in school will not be understood by ordinary people. For instance, your clients. You need to communicate on paper, or on screen, with words, not just pictures. When I was starting out, I did everything I could to get out of the office, to learn how ordinary people thought about architecture and architects. Understanding their point of view, and finding common ground is the start of real communication. You, the designer, are at the center of this, and if you just focus on making pretty drawings, you will miss the bigger purpose, the bigger achievement. Join a civic commission, a neighborhood association, help a political candidate, volunteer at your local library. You will find that you have skills and insights as an outsider as a designer, as a person with a particular point of view. As you participate in a group you will be finding out who you are. And who they are. And they will be finding out who you are. And guess what? You will be building a base of friends, and of future clients. No one ever hired someone because they saw their cool website. Or their Tweets. Or their Instagram. People hire people. They hire people they know.

How do you get involved? Look around you and see what turns you on. Or what turns you off. And then do something about it. Here’s something I did last year.

I was invited to give a talk about my work at the Architecture School at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. I made a slide show of the projects I had completed. I explained how we developed programs, investigated the history of the site, proposed energy saving systems, and designed the building. At the end of the lecture, students were invited to ask questions.

They wanted to know what architects were doing about abuse of young people in architects offices, about harassment, about equity and equal pay. They had seen some sensational news stories about abuse of young women architects in the offices of famous stars. The students wanted to know what the AIA (that’s the American Institute of Architects) was doing to protect young architects like themselves, as they entered the profession.

My answer was “AIA is conducting a study.” I went home and thought “That’s a ridiculous waste of time. We don’t need a study to know right from wrong. The AIA Code of Ethics needs to set the standard for good behavior in the profession right now.” And then I thought, sitting around and complaining isn’t going to change a thing.

The AIA has 94,000 members. About 3000 of them are Fellows, they have been chosen to represent the highest standards of the profession. They are the leaders. Well, it turns out that I knew about fifty of them. I wrote a letter to each one. I asked them to join me in petitioning the AIA to immediately amend the Code of Ethics governing professional conduct. Here’s what I wrote:

There can be no place in the AIA for people who abuse their status, power, or influence. We cannot continue to watch as people of diverse backgrounds and identities enter the profession with high hopes, only to leave in disillusionment when they encounter the realities of lower pay, lack of respect, abuse, or harassment.

As Fellows we must step forward as the first members of the AIA to commit publicly to holding ourselves to the highest standards of ethical behavior as an example to the wider profession and the public.

As Fellows we must pledge to act with integrity.

As Fellows we must commit to fostering a professional environment of mutual respect and equitable treatment in our studios and workplaces.

As Fellows, we must actively endorse a policy that welcomes all individuals into a rewarding, generous, and ethical profession.

Two days after I sent my letter, I had one hundred replies. Two weeks later, I had 500 replies. Friends sent the letter to friends. They were eager to be heard. They were eager to commit to a higher standard of behavior, they all wanted to help. I took those 500 signatures to the AIA convention business meeting and brought a resolution from the floor, demanding that the AIA immediately change the Code of Ethics to say that “members shall not engage in harassment or discrimination in their professional activities on the basis of race religion national origin, age, disability, gender, or sexual orientation.” The resolution passed, with a vote of 4300 to 13. The AIA Code of Ethics was changed.

500 of us made change happen for 94,000 architects. It’s a start.

Here we are today, looking at the world and thinking about how our creative training can be put into action to make the world a better place, in the office. In the field, in our cities, working with our clients, translating their dreams into reality.

As you enter the Real World, you will find your powers and find your strengths, and I urge you to use them not only on the job, but in every way that you can, to make this world a better place.

You are the rallying cry that can change the world.

Frances Halsband FAIA



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