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Architects Descend on New Orleans: Melissa Urcan discusses The American Institute of Architects (AIA) National Convention and Design Expo

By Thaddeus Zarse

Attention New Orleans drivers! The American Institute of Architects (AIA) National Convention and Design Expo starts Thursday, May 12th and continues through Saturday which includes an influx of approximately fifteen thousand architects from around the country. But why the call for drivers to take heed? Architects have a tendency to look everywhere but in the direction they are walking focusing their attention on the buildings around them than the fact they are about to wander into the street and are willing to risk life and limb to get the perfect angle for a photo even if it means crouching down in the middle of a busy intersection (famed Barcelona architect Antoni Gaudi was killed after being hit by a tram). All kidding aside, last night I had the opportunity to talk with Melissa Urcan, the executive director of AIA New Orleans, at an event hosted at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art’s Patrick F. Taylor Library, where the exhibitions “New Orleans Architecture Now”, “Elemental”, and “Disappearing New Orleans” (located across the street in the AIA New Orleans Design Center) are on view, about the convention and the importance of having it in New Orleans.

Thaddeus Zarse: What types of events are occurring at the convention?

Melissa Urcan: There are over 600 events which range from over 140 guest and educational tours, lots of parties, receptions, ceremonies, speakers, in addition to nearly 600 additional seminars for the continuing education of architects.

TZ: Obviously the convention is geared toward architects, are related professions attending also?

MU: The convention is really open to anyone related to the field of architecture such as contractors, interior designers, suppliers, and planners. With this year’s focus on planning we are bringing in a lot of important local people in that process. In future years if the convention theme is so closely related to other professions, I think it would be great to combine efforts with other large organizations like the American Planning Association to address these issues in an even more collaborative environment.

TZ: The convention is subtitled “Regional Design, Revolution, Ecology Matters”. Why these topics and how are they addressed in the convention?

MU: This went through a long discussion and all of the organizers knew that in the aftermath of the storm in New Orleans that planning was a big deal. Because of these large-scale planning efforts the decision was made to put a focus on regional design and planning. The decision to focus the convention on these topics is determined primarily by AIA National, but with input from the local AIA chapter and its organizers. While its focus on planning may be less embraced by architects than a focus on design specifically, this was an important understanding of New Orleans at this time. Many of the panel discussions and all of the keynote speakers deal with the discussion of cities and regional issues as opposed to just focusing on individual buildings.

TZ: How long has the planning process for the event been?

MU: The planning process was about 18 months. We attended last year’s conference to focus on how it was organized in detail. We try and make as many events as possible relate to the larger topic and mission of the convention. It’s a huge collaboration between the local chapter and AIA National.

TZ: What are the potential ramifications and benefits to hosting the convention?

MU: The convention really brings a national audience to the city. Events that we do like DesCours in December are able to get more attention. Our new Design Center on Lee Circle helps in a huge way to make the AIA a real entity in the city which not many cities have even much larger ones. New Orleans right now is doing better than most cities in the bad economy, so when people visit they get to see the city going strong.

TZ: Can local non architects partake in the convention in any way?

MU: Absolutely! Anyone can walk around the convention floor where there a many small gallery exhibitions showing work from around the country for free. The only locations where you need a conference badge are when you actually enter into one of the seminars. You can also visit the Expo floor where all of the exhibitors are set up for a low price. Anyone is also allowed to visit the AIA store which is at the convention center. They are also able to visit the AIA New Orleans Design Center on Lee Circle where we have the exhibition, Disappearing New Orleans, and check out the Ogden Museum of Southern Art’s Patrick F. Taylor Library also on Lee Circle, where the exhibitions New Orleans Architecture Now and Elemental are on view.

The American Institute of Architects (AIA) National Convention and Design Expo is running until May 14th.

For more information please check out the convention website,


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