What makes a successful conference?

Amanda Reekie

What might be the outcome of 3,000+ architects from dozens of different countries meeting for three whole days in Durban? What problems might be solved? What resolutions made? What new international alliances formed?

The UIA Congress meets triennially, hosted each time by a different city.  In 2014, Durban and the South African Institute of Architects presented an ambitious programme of lectures and workshops. Entitled Architecture Otherwhere, and based around the themes of Resilience, Ecology and Culture, it aimed to dissolve the distinction between buildings and the city, between design and making and between the profession and communities. With speakers such as Cameron Sinclair of Architects for Humanity, the overarching theme of architecture as social art made a refreshing change from the usual contemplation of icons and architectural navels.

UIA14 enabled delegates to deepen their knowledge, explore ideas with an international group, and forge new links with architects across the work. Or did it?

The dense programme was impressively rich, but to cram in the number of papers being presented, two or three talks were held concurrently in different rooms. This was very frustrating for delegates who were sometimes forced to choose between seminars that they had travelled to attend. The huge number of papers from around the world created a management nightmare and quite a few speakers just didn’t turn up.  The suitcase-sized conference programme was almost unnavigable although the congress app performed better.

For those like RIBA who came to talk to the national institutions that make up the UIA it provided a very good forum for cross border dialogue; and the Congress gave Durban architectural students an fantastic introduction to the global world of architecture. But I came across many speaker-delegates attending alone who knew no one and met no one, except me! And when it came to delivering their cherished papers, the audience was divided by competing talks and they presented to rows of empty seats.

Stratton & Reekie is involved in planning a Silver Age Summit next autumn that will bring together design and healthcare professionals to discuss the challenges of providing empowering living conditions for our growing elderly population. There is tremendous interest from both professions.  Unlike the UIA our Summit must be focussed, inclusive and outcome driven. It’s not enough to pull in lots of people and have a vast programme of talks. The best conferences, summits, and congresses drive towards stated objectives, and delegates deliver and disseminate resolutions and ideas that will ignite change.