In today's PowerPoint world, the architect's presentation proved to be surprisingly low-tech. Instead of logging onto a laptop, he turned to a sheaf of transparencies, carefully placing each one on the slide projector. They deserved the care. With their faded black backgrounds and black-and-white drawings, the thin plastic sheets looked delicate and well-used.

But the ideas Eric R. Kuhne outlined were enduring ones, worthy of being captured permanently in bricks and mortar. As the principal of Eric Kuhne & Associates, an internationally known research and design firm in London and New York, he draws on the places of the past while designing the projects of the future. European marketplaces provide inspiration for today's town centers. Centuries-old civic buildings suggest the decorative imagery for office complexes. And the responsibility of creating great public spaces, long the province of churches and rulers, has now, Kuhne believes, passed to the world of real estate, all around the globe.

Alison Rice
Katherine Lambert Alison Rice

"We are the only hope for restoring the pageantry of city life to the city," he told the audience at the collaborative Mixed-Use Conference held in November in Hollywood, Fla. (See box for details.)

He's right, of course. Only the real estate industry has the capital, the know-how, and the vision to restore an aging building, renew a stumbling city, or establish a new destination. Regardless of whether you build new properties or simply maintain older ones, it is worth remembering the sometimes staggering responsibility that society has placed with this industry. Multifamily companies both construct and oversee the places where people live. In many ways, that qualifies as an obligation for both the structure itself and the experiences connected with that building. After all, who can forget his or her first apartment? I don't think I ever will. My first place was humble, but it was mine, and I paid my rent each month with a combination of pride and long-awaited independence.

During his thoughtful and beautifully articulated talk, Kuhne mentioned a Greek word, eudaimonia. Writing the letters in black ink on a transparency, he broke the word down, translating it as the "flourishing of the human spirit." It represents a concept that he weaves through his work, blending commerce and culture to create meaningful places. In Europe, that means designing neighborhoods that are not only walkable by the young and hip, but also by little children and grandparents. In the Middle East, it entails building high-rise towers that top off with a cathedral, synagogue, mosque, and inter-denominational chapel.

As for what that will mean for apartment properties in the United States, that's up to you.