Jim Williams is the 2013 president of the Charlotte chapter of the American Institute of Architects.
“Section,” Williams corrected me. “AIA Charlotte ‘Section.’ Don’t ask me why.”
And he’s a partner and national director of design for the Charlotte firm of Little Diversified Architectural Consulting, which is anything but little; its latest international office just opened in Beijing.
He’s a Midwesterner and graduated in 1984 from the University of Kansas — “Yeah, I’m a Jayhawk” — who moved with his pregnant wife and two children to Charlotte in 1994.
Williams is an avid road cyclist who wears two rubber armbands. The orange one is dedicated to the memory of a Charlotte-area cyclist who died in a collision with a car. The yellow one is for the familiar Live Strong cancer-survivor foundation founded by the disgraced Lance Armstrong.
And he has the high forehead, deep-set eyes and dash of the actor Jerry Orbach — though he doesn’t know who that is.
I enjoyed my talk with him in his offices off Tyvola Road and Interstate 77. But we parted with one regret. When we drove to Queens University to photograph him in front of a “living wall” full of grasses and plants on the exterior of a new building by Little, we took separate cars, and I didn’t get to ride beside him in his swell little roadster.
You’re president of the local AIA “section.” What’s that about? Over the past four years on the board, the leadership has evolved to three goals, or objectives: 1. Fostering the next generation of architects, helping them in career development, to lead the profession and the institute. 2. Engaging the public, basically to highlight the value architecture has, and can have, on the built environment. 3. Pushing sustainability, help members understand and learn about architecture and the institute, show the impact that our sustainability initiative has, how it has an impact on us all.
You mentioned the next generation. Are there enough, or too many, or whatever, young architects? The last two or three years have been tough on contractors and designers. There haven’t been jobs for new professionals coming out of schools, and people have been losing jobs, too. Because of these two factors, there’s been a slowdown in career development, not being further educated beyond what they learn in school.
What about the academic vs. practical training thing? Now you’re starting to get into a subject that I’m passionate about. Academia is valuable. It helps young, soon-to-be architects understand what is possible and helps students learn about the ability to be creative problem-solvers. It explores new possibilities. When they enter the workforce, they help those of us in the workforce ask tough questions, prompt us to think. We might not be thinking of those questions.
Is there a place for architecture in homebuilding? There’s an unfortunate divide between contractors and designers. I was involved in construction as a student, actually worked in construction, and I got to know how contractors are involved in the process, who actually “owns” the design.
Let’s say you want to build a house. You go right to the builder. Why go to an architect and pay more? But where a contractor is unbelievably knowledgeable about his work, he’s not trained in the life/safety issues that is really what architecture is concerned with. Contractors just aren’t generally educated in sustainable design, daylighting — those elements.
But I’m optimistic where architecture is going, a holistic approach — working with interior designers, daylight specialists, acousticians, others — and part of that equation is working with contractors about how a space functions or should function. Architects say to their clients, their residential clients, “Tell me about your lifestyle. What do you like to do, and at what time of day? What rooms do you actually live in, and when in the day? Where do your kids do their homework?” And we gather all of that information and use it to enhance your life.
A contractor can help that happen, but you need both to have an optimal space to live in. And the owner needs to be involved, too. Working together. And structural engineers and others, a collaborative experience. There’s a definite art aspect to architecture, but it is grounded in practical application, or should be.
It’s surprising, considering we’re surrounded by it, living and working in it, that so few people really recognize architecture. Yeah, I was meeting with Chris Jarrett, the director of the architecture school at UNC-Charlotte, which is a great program. He teaches a general-education class, Intro to Architecture, open to any undergraduate. And the response he gets from a lot of students is they don’t understand that architecture has meaning.
We want the best of a building. The art aspect is there, but architecture enhances — or, if it’s bad architecture, disenhances, if that’s a word — lives. Making it easier to learn, if it’s a school. Or heal, if it’s a hospital. Or if it’s an industrial or office space, be more productive. But we’re sometimes challenged with how to quantify that for people, with test scores or teacher-satisfaction studies.
How’d you get into this racket? I started out at college in fine arts. A professor the first year said, “Have you ever thought about architecture?”
Was that a subtle way of saying your art stank? Ha. Well, I knew something about art. My grandma was an oil painter, and she taught me. But as for architecture, I was daunted at first by the math/science/engineering of it. But my professor told me it’s different when it’s applied.
What else about architecture gets you passionate? Are we building for longevity? In this throwaway culture, I’m not even sure if longevity is a desired quality any more. So that throwaway mentality may be creeping into architecture. I hope not.
But you go to a town, like Pittsburgh, and you see all these fantastic old, historic buildings that have stood the test of time beside these ’70s buildings that really are just trash — and you see a lot of the same kind of buildings being built now. Like so much of the rest of our culture, architecture may be becoming overly focused on the short-term return on investment.
I’ve always wanted to write a story about architects and their cars. What do you drive? (Laughs) You’re right, we tend be eccentric that way. I drive a new Audi TT. And in the past I had a ’59 MGA I wish I still had. And a Triumph TRA. My wife drives a minivan, and I have had all these unfixable two-seaters that run like shit. But they look good.
Tony Brown can be reached at email@example.com, (704) 247-2912 or on Twitter at @tonymecktimes.