Attention: You are using an outdated browser, device or you do not have the latest version of JavaScript downloaded and so this website may not work as expected. Please download the latest software or switch device to avoid further issues.

News > Advancing Architecture and Design > What does a brick need to be?

What does a brick need to be?

A treatise on architectural practice.


Land Acknowledgement

We give thanks for the land we stand on today.

We acknowledge that the success we enjoy has come at the expense of the natural environment, the Lenni-Lenape Nation and indigenous peoples in general.

We make this acknowledgment so that our design processes will be based on the principle of reciprocity with the land and with the original people of this place.


Wealth Acknowledgement

We give thanks for the wealth we enjoy. Everyone here has worked hard for their success.

But we acknowledge that the success we enjoy today is built on a legacy of enslavement and systemic oppression of millions of people.

We make this acknowledgment so that our design processes will be based on the principle of reconciliation.

As architects, we can’t solve all of society’s problems. But we can make a consistent effort to address social inequity on our projects, in our firms, and within our communities.


I’ll begin my remarks tonight by sharing a profound and provocative question posed by Louis Khan, one of the great Philadelphia architects:

‘What do you want, Brick?’
And Brick says to you, ‘I like an Arch.’

It was a powerful question because he gave the brick agency to shape its own reality. And it was a profound question that captivated architects for generations. It cut to the core of what it means to be an architect, a shaper of form and a giver of meaning.


Times change.

Here we are today in 2023 and indeed, the world is quite different now.

Like Mr. Kahn, I ask you to assume the persona of a brick once more. I ask:

‘What do you need, Brick?’
And Brick says to you, ‘I need to be sustainable.’

The difference between wants and needs is like the difference between night and day, and yet we must account for both in our thinking.

So tonight, I will answer for the brick in four ways with the purpose of better understanding what it means to be an architect in the 21st century.

I hope the message you hear tonight will live in your mind as a framework for architectural practice and serve as an indelible signature in your heart.


The first part of the answer to the question: “What does a brick need to be?” involves the word People.

The brick needs to be made in factories where people make a living wage and have paid sick days.

The brick needs to be installed by builders who offer training programs for anyone who wants to learn the trade of masonry and the opportunity for people to succeed or fail on their own terms.

The brick needs to be drawn in architecture firms where a commitment has been made to pursue justice and belonging in the workplace. And that starts internally, here, in the hearts and minds of each of you.

The brick needs to be socially sustainable

The AIA provides a platform for you to develop the people aspect of your practices and to strengthen your positions as civic leaders. The Culture Change Initiative and the Committee on Equity, Diversity and Inclusion among others are here to support you.


The second part of the answer to the question: “What does a Brick need to be?” involves the word Planet.

The brick needs to be made from recycled materials in factories that account for their carbon emissions.

The brick needs be installed by expert builders who make every effort to reduce their carbon footprint.

The brick needs to be drawn in the wall sections of architecture firms that have committed to fighting climate change.

The brick needs to be environmentally sustainable.

Once again, the AIA is here to support you with the stellar work by the Committee On The Environment and by the development of the 2030 Challenge. I urge every architect to sign the pledge immediately and begin reporting progress towards carbon neutrality.


The third part of the answer to the question: “What does a brick need to be?” involves the word Place.

A brick needs to be a part of a process aimed at authentic Placemaking.

The difference between designing a building and making a place is as subtle as it is powerful.

The brick needs to be part of something that is not just visually beautiful. It needs to be part of an orchestrated effort to connect to the place in ways that engage all our senses. We do this by connecting to the original people of the place and by understanding the land in in all its profound dimensions.

The brick needs to be culturally sustainable.

The AIA is here to support you in this role. The AIA Design Committee, for example has regular meetings where these kinds of discussions are happening all the time. This is how you build your practice and elevate the people in your firms to higher levels of leadership.


The last part of the answer to the question

“What does a brick need to be?” involves the word, Prosperity.

The difference between “profit” and “prosperity” is again like night and day. I think we all can agree that architecture firms must remain profitable to keep the doors open and function as a business. But if that profit is gained at the expense of people, planet, and place, it is a hollow victory indeed.

The brick needs to be economically sustainable.

And again, the AIA is here to support you. Our committees, educational programs and lobbying efforts are designed to assist you in building a truly prosperous practice.


So those are the core values of what the brick needs to be. Together, the key words of People, Planet, Place and Prosperity form the mental map of the sustainable future we all seek. It is a roadmap to achieving our oath as architects to protect the health, safety, and welfare of our society.

But how do we put these values into Practice?

Our power to be a force for good in society becomes exponential when we form strong partnerships, and we work together for real change. We are proud of our long-standing alliance with the Center for Architecture and Design which promotes projects like Architecture + Design in Education, The Justice Alliance for Design Education, and Design Philadelphia.

Our partnership with PhilaNOMA is another example how we can join forces to better meet our mission.

At the heart of these partnerships is the desire to be more inclusive, more outward facing and more welcoming to new opportunities that serve to amplify and accelerate our mission.


In conclusion, I offer one last thought for consideration.

I meet with many AIA members and some of they say:
“I pay my dues, what do I get in return?”
That statement reflects a transactional relationship with the AIA.

Instead, I ask each of you to consider forging a transformational relationship with the AIA.

By asking the questions:

“How might I get involved?” or

“How might I lead?” or

“How might I support the efforts?”

With your dues, your volunteer hours, your advocacy, your imagination, and your leadership, we will fulfill our oath as architects by meeting the needs of the people, the needs of planet, the need for authentic spaces and places and the need for a prosperous and sustainable future.

The Brick thanks you and I thank you


We celebrate the life and work of Lou Khan, but we also acknowledge that he carries a complex legacy.

One of the finest and most revered Architects of the 20th century, Kahn also had deep personal flaws. In addition to his wife, Esther Kahn, Kahn maintained relationships with two women that were also at one time his employees, Harriet Pattison and Anne Tyng, and fathered children with all of them. Some of this triple life is described by his son, Nathaniel Kahn, in his 2003 documentary about his father, My Architect — A Son’s Journey. An even broader perspective is provided by Wendy Lesser in her 2017 biography of Kahn, You Say to Brick.

Mr. Kahn’s quotation about the brick was transcribed from the 2003 documentary ‘My Architect: A Son’s Journey by Nathaniel Kahn. Master class at Penn, 1971.

Cover Image Credit:
Adapted and simplified from the original elevation drawing of the Philadelphia Athenaeum (NOT16.16) 1847
Source: Philadelphia Athenaeum
Drawn by: Redrawn by Kaye Martinez

Special Credit to Nica Waters Fleming, my wife, who is the number one influence in my life. This speech would not have sounded anything like it does if it were not for her presence and strength as a leader in her own right.

The Speaker/Author

Rob Fleming, AIA is the 2023 incoming president of the Philadelphia AIA. He is an architect, author, educator, and a passionate advocate for a sustainable future. Learn more about Rob at

Similar stories

Most read

This website is powered by