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FAIA Ron van der Veen

Illustration by Ryan Polich

I got the email on a recent Friday morning:

Congratulations! It is our sincere pleasure to inform you that you have been elected to the College of Fellows of the American Institute of Architects

I impulsively jumped up and yelled to the whole office, “I got it!!!” then ran back to my computer, in a panicked instant of extreme self-doubt, to make sure that I hadn’t overrepresented myself in my application. I have to confess that for a guy who never wanted to conform to the AIA status quo, getting my “F” has been surprisingly gratifying. And since decompressing I’ve had a good amount of time to reflect on the significance of this accolade and the journey in getting there.

It’s a bit difficult to explain what FAIA is to people not in the architecture profession. I say it’s sort of like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which celebrates the lifetime achievements of musicians who are good and not dead, yet. Applicants must demonstrate how their professional contributions have made a national impact, which is pretty hard to measure, so it comes down to counting awards, publications and lectures.

Applying to become FAIA is rather arduous and inspires the question along the way: “Why go through the hassle?” If a person is nostalgic at all, it’s a great excuse to do a retrospective of one’s life. For me the process started with an unexpected nomination by AIA Seattle. It ultimately became very cumbersome, because of course, I waited until the literal last minute to submit my application. Trying to recollect a body of work and influence with the second hand ticking was exceptionally nerve-wracking. The most awkward aspect of the submission was writing about how important I am as though I were someone else — bragging in the third person! And then there was the long five-month wait …

So what does it mean to add an F to AIA? This might sound disingenuous, but I recognize that the most important thing I’ve done in my career is surround myself with really talented, relentless (and nice!) people. These are team members who just want to do better work for the sake of better work.

I graduated from architecture school believing the typical 20th-century myth about the architect as the lone genius, which was (and still is) propagated by grumpy looking 20th-century architects with huge egos and really great teams around them. In my career I’ve often envied the ability of star architects to provoke and turn the world upside down with their work. I’ve wondered if I’ve been too timid or not creative enough. I also have a theory that the best Northwest architecture falls under the category of really great background buildings. We don’t really do “splash!” and the reason is simple: the weather. We have to keep the rain out and that tends to make our structures more like flannel shirts and Gore-Tex jackets than flashy runway ensembles.

Over the years I’ve hesitantly become comfortable with the idea that I’m a background-building designer, and I’ll probably never create an icon. But maybe my path has ultimately been more rewarding. Though I’ve rarely gotten to ask myself how I would approach a renowned commission, I’ve surrounded myself with people who have continued to pose the less stunning and more incremental question of “What if we try this?” When budgets, clients, codes, schedules and design review committees leave me disheartened, I’ve had innumerable (I can use that term because I’m old!) colleagues who have said things like “Have you thought about this?” “It’s just not quite right yet.” “We AREN’T doing that!” “Take one more look at it.” “They might not like it, but what the hell!”

I’ve always had teams that have taken mundane challenges and pushed me toward discomfort. And for that reason I get to add an F to my AIA.

Before I accept this honor, I’d like to thank Kerry, Scott, Roger, Vinny, Brodie, Lisa, Curtis, The Guge!, Andrew, Stevie, Mike, Bob, Kelly, Kim, Matthew, Dude!, Wild Style, Lee, Lizzy, Ken, Mark, Deb, Kaveh, Dana, Aaron, Tom, Dave, Kev, Jen-wah, Gordon, Michael, Xiaochen, Deisel, Julia, Man Who Stares at Goats, Boris, Bossman …