The AIA needs to reconcile its actions with its values.
Hello Readers. It’s been a while. I hope you’re doing well. The rest of this post is about the AIA specifically and “politics” generally, so if you’d prefer not to read about those things today, you can instead follow this link to see a nice video of some turtles eating watermelon slices. Cheers. —THA
I am not a dues-paying member of the American Institute of Architects. Some readers might find the rest of this post hypocritical or unhelpful, perhaps dismissing it as a critique lobbed by an outsider without any skin in the game. But given the AIA’s habit of speaking as though they represent all architectural workers, I think it’s okay for those of us on the outside to push back when that voice fails to meet our expectations.
And while I’m not a member, I have friends, coworkers, and mentors who are involved with the AIA at all levels. We talk, as friends and coworkers so often do, about the state of the profession, and about our hopes, dreams, and frustrations. There’s a lot of disappointment with the AIA’s lukewarm reactions to recent events and with its advocacy more generally. This piece is a reflection on that disappointment, which I don’t think is limited to my social circle, and a call for “the largest, most influential network of architecture professionals” to do better by the communities it claims to serve.
As one last note: I don’t mean any of this as an attack on or judgment of any individual AIA members or leaders. I know there are many conscientious, talented, committed people working within the organization to address these very concerns. I’m glad they are there and wish them nothing but success.
Okay, that’s enough preamble. Let’s get started.
Quick Background On The AIA
The American Institute of Architects is a professional organization advocating for the work of architects and the role of architecture in the United States. It’s not the only such organization, but it’s by far the largest and most influential. At present, the AIA has a membership of approximately 95,000 architects and designers. Members are located all around the world, but the vast majority live and work in the United States.
Some readers will remember the uproar caused by former AIA CEO Robert Ivy’s statement on the election of Donald Trump, a bit of which is excerpted below.
“The AIA and its 89,000 members are committed to working with President-elect Trump to address the issues our country faces, particularly strengthening the nation’s aging infrastructure…
This has been a hard-fought, contentious election process. It is now time for all of us to work together to advance policies that help our country move forward.”
Architects were, justifiably, alarmed and angered by the statement’s silence on the very real threats a Trump presidency posed to so many people. Ivy, in response to significant pushback from membership, issued multiple clarifications, all of which reasserted that the AIA is a bipartisan organization with a strong commitment to its values.
This twinned assertion of bipartisanship and deeply-held values has been repeated again and again in various AIA position statements over the years. The bipartisan bit is clear enough, but what are the core AIA values, exactly? Thankfully, there’s no shortage of ways to find out.
The link at in the dropdown menu at the AIA website labeled “Our Values” leads to this page.
Here are the top-line values listed, several of which then link to their own additional pages:
We stand for equity and human rights
We stand for architecture that strengthens our communities
We stand for a sustainable future
We stand for protecting communities from the impact of climate change
We stand for economic opportunity
We stand for investing in the future
We speak up, and policymakers listen
To learn more about these values and how they shape AIA work and advocacy, one can also consult the federal policy outreach page, the state and local issues page, the directory of public policies and position statements, the 2020 policy platform, or even the 2021-2025 strategic plan.
The strategic plan is illuminating in the vision it presents for where the organization hopes to be in 2030. Part of that vision reads:
“AIA has become a catalyst for change, for bold action that develops and delivers solutions to society’s most pressing needs. Architects are positioned at the center of policy discussions surrounding the built environment…
AIA is at the center of the world’s most urgent conversations and is acknowledged as the driving force inspiring and empowering architects to improve society and change the world.”
These are big, laudable ambitions. I would be proud to be represented by the AIA this vision describes. But that isn’t the AIA we have, and I’m not convinced that there’s a full awareness within the organization of the ways it falls short. There’s a wide gulf between the AIA’s stated values and its day-to-day messaging and behavior, one that mirrors the struggles many of our institutions face in responding to the political developments of the past few decades.
The AIA We Have
The AIA we have, as mentioned above, is committed to a principle of bipartisanship in its political advocacy. In a vacuum, that’s reasonable enough: AIA members come from all walks of life and no one political party has a monopoly on policymaking in the built environment.
The AIA we have is also committed to the success of its corporate partners. To be frank, I don’t think our profession is strengthened or our goals advanced by these sorts of relationships, but I understand that they help finance other initiatives that are more meaningful to me.1
But what happens when these commitments are in conflict with the overarching AIA values discussed above? More often than not, the values take a backseat.
There’s much better writing elsewhere about the pitfalls of bipartisanship for its own sake, so I won’t dwell too much. But briefly: the 2021-2025 strategic plan outlines two primary goals:
Climate action for human and ecological health
Advance racial, ethnic, and gender equity
It’s clear today—and has been for years—that the two major parties in the US political landscape are not equally committed to achieving these goals. This asymmetry was, indeed, a huge part of the pushback against the 2016 “Let’s all move forward together!” statement mentioned earlier. Unfortunately, the degree to which the two parties differ in their aims does not seem to have permeated through to the AIA’s political strategy.
Through the ArchiPAC political action committee, the AIA regularly donates to congressional candidates on both sides of the aisle. This money comes not from general membership dues, but rather from member donations to the ArchiPAC fund. All the same, contributions from ArchiPAC are made in the name of the AIA as a whole and are used to “contribute to candidates running for federal office who align closely with AIA's legislative priorities and the profession's values.”
In the 2020 election cycle, ArchiPAC contributed a total of $253,000 to individual candidates. This money was split almost 50/50 between Democrats and Republicans.2 Of that $253,000 total, $38,500 was directed toward legislators who later voted to overturn the results of the 2020 election. The shock of January 6th prompted a brief pause and stocktaking. However, in the 18 months since, ArchiPAC has donated an additional $2,500 to Louisiana Representative Garret Graves, with the stated rationale being Graves’ positions on “climate, infrastructure, and resilience.”
Now I’m not a rabid, inflexible “Vote Blue No Matter Who” type, and I acknowledge that there are perfectly valid reasons ArchiPAC may support candidates with whom I personally disagree.3 But what exactly is the AIA hoping to achieve here?
Giving $2,500 to Mitch McConnell4 will not bring about “climate action for human and ecological health” or serious action on “racial, ethnic, and gender equity” and it’s dishonest to pretend otherwise. And such a contribution won’t advance some abstract, Sorkinesque goal of compromise and problem-solving, as the GOP has refused time and again to find any common ground with Democrats on even the most mild and popular of initiatives.
What it does do is provide ideological cover for the most vile, antisocial actors in our political landscape; it tells them “Architects approve of the values you promote and your vision for the future.”
We can amicably disagree on tax policy, building codes, and the like all day long. But today’s “debates” are about whether all people should have equal rights, whether the planet we call home should be spared from the worst excesses of rapacious capitalism, and whether the right to vote in free and fair elections will meaningfully exist in a few years’ time. To give to politicians whose agenda is completely at odds with the values of the profession is harmful and counterproductive, even if it offers some notion of “balance.”
And yet, the AIA chooses this position of neutrality-at-all-costs in almost every circumstance. This is unnecessary and unhelpful, to put it mildly.
When the Supreme Court strips millions of their bodily autonomy, for the AIA to say nothing is to prioritize the feelings of its most reactionary members over the rights of anyone who can become pregnant.
When children and teachers gunned are down in their classrooms, to issue a tepid call for reflection that can’t even name the problem at hand is cowardice.
To make these choices again and again, on issue after issue, year after year, is not advocacy—it’s lunacy.
Fuel to the Fire
Even if we decide to set ArchiPAC and statements on current events off to one side, there’s another elephant in the room here: corporate partnerships. Among the AIA’s “Collaboration Partners” (a group which includes Owens Corning, Guardian Glass, and Rockwool, among others) is the Kingspan Group. As the official inquiry into the deadly Grenfell Tower fire has revealed, Kingspan was content for years to sell a cladding product for applications they knew were dangerous, and more than happy to misrepresent the product’s safety in a number of ways. Further, the company’s own workers in California are attempting to unionize in the wake of numerous safety concerns in the factory.
What is the AIA’s role in this? In anticipation of possible demonstrations from the those unionizing workers—via the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and Transportation Workers Union (SMART)—at the recent A’22 conference in Chicago, the AIA sent out an email, quoted in part below.
“As we gather for the AIA Conference on Architecture 2022 in Chicago, we want to provide you with a brief update on the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and Transportation (SMART) Union. As you may know, SMART is at odds with Kingspan, an AIA corporate partner, and has been attempting to bring AIA into their dispute for months. Our good faith attempts to discuss the matter with SMART led to AIA being quoted out of context in their messaging. SMART further declined AIA’s invitation to discuss product safety protocols related to their claims.
As a separate matter, SMART’s reported disruptive actions related to their complaint against Kingspan at various recent industry events led AIA to inform them that they would not be permitted to exhibit or attend in 2022 to ensure a positive experience for conference attendees.
As a result, SMART is attempting to reach out to you, our members, and we question the sincerity of their motives. We further suspect they may attempt to gain access to our conference attendees. Please know we are monitoring the situation and will provide further updates as necessary.”
The internal politics and deliberations here are a mystery to me. I won’t pretend to know what “disruptive actions” were planned or the details of the previous “good faith attempts to discuss the matter.”
What I do know is the list of benefits the AIA promises in its pitch to potential corporate partners:
“With AIA as your business partner, you get:
Targeted access to architecture and design professionals, including unmatched interaction with key demographic, topical and behavioral audiences
Expert marketing strategies to deploy your products and services through a variety of channels and platforms, including state and regional AIA chapters, AIA Knowledge Communities, editorial programming, research, education, our annual convention and other events
High-touch consulting and personalized service and support”
Is it far-fetched to think that these benefits might also include preferential treatment in cases like this SMART-Kingspan dispute? Nobody expects the AIA to be judge and jury in any allegation of corporate misconduct or labor action. But the AIA has chosen to “question the sincerity” of workers while giving a pass to the corporate partner which has expressly admitted to “wholly unacceptable historical issues in testing, marketing and advice” in their products.
The last line of the email sent to AIA members before the conference is as follows:
“AIA’s highest priority is ensuring that our time together in Chicago is the most rewarding and fulfilling experience it can be for the entire AIA community.”
“Let’s all just have a good time” is the highest priority of an office party committee, not country’s the largest professional organization for architects.
Where We Stand
I’ve had different versions of this piece kicking around for a few months now. There was the draft I started after the SMART-Kingspan email. And the draft I started after the toothless statement on gun violence put out in the wake of the horrible events in Uvalde.
At a certain point, every path winding through the issues arrives at the same conclusion: a genuine, good-faith commitment to the values it (claims to) hold would require the AIA to take a much more active stance on a number of issues.
That’s it. We can dance around the edges forever, but ultimately advocating for the profession as we want it to exist will mean making some people uncomfortable. It will mean acknowledging that there aren’t two opposite and equal sides to every issue. It will mean recognizing that some of the figures and institutions we interact with aren’t operating in good faith and don’t wish to live in the world we seek to create.
There are those who will claim that making these changes makes architects look weaker, as if the strength and moral clarity of our discipline could only be determined by keeping the approval of those who share our values least.
Fifty-four years ago, at another AIA convention, civil rights leader Whitney Young said all of this much better than I could ever hope to:5
“You are not a profession that has distinguished itself by your social and civic contributions to the cause of civil rights, and I am sure this has not come to you as any shock. You are most distinguished by your thunderous silence and your complete irrelevance.”
That part above is what gets quoted and shared most, and for good reason. But I’m also drawn to these remarks, right near the end of Young’s speech:
“So, what’s at stake then is your country, your profession, and you as a decent civilized human being. Anatole France once said, ‘I prefer the errors of enthusiasm to the indifference of wisdom.’ For a society that has permitted itself the luxury of an excess of callousness and indifference, we can now afford to permit ourselves the luxury of an excess of caring and of concern.”
To live and work in the United States today is to feel numb to this excess of callousness and indifference. To pray, even, that when all the votes are counted callousness and indifference will win the day over something even worse.
The planet is on fire, in ways more literal with each passing day. Only by the gloomiest of metrics can we claim to have “beaten” COVID, and yet life continues without any mitigations or restrictions. Housing is unaffordable, violent right-wing extremism on the rise. The possibility of Congress accomplishing anything at all feels increasingly remote. If architecture is to play a meaningful role in addressing these crises, something in our approach has to change.
I mentioned at the top of this piece that I have some friends in different roles within the AIA. One of those friends forwarded me an email recently about the AIA’s Government Advocacy Committee.
The email aims to clarify “how and why we [the AIA] engage on certain policy issues and decline to formally engage on others.” It references the “Where architects stand” page and some of the other position and policy documents mentioned earlier.
The bulk of the message is mostly nice-sounding fluff about building broad coalitions, respecting a diversity of opinions, and finding the most relevant places for the AIA to use its voice.
One piece which stands out is a three-part test for impact.
“Within the lens of impact, we feel the decision of advocacy for a particular policy means that policy must meet at least two of three criteria:
Are architects, design professionals/the profession impacted by this policy?
Is architecture part of the problem and/or the solution?
Do architects have a unique perspective to bring to this policy issue?”
To be clear, there are certain issues that architects know little about and can’t speak to with any professional authority or moral clarity. But the framework above can so easily lead right back to the “thunderous silence and complete irrelevance” that Young critiqued five decades ago.
The urge to always curtail and limit the voice of architects for risk of making enemies does our profession no favors. To draw a thick, black line between architecture and everything else misunderstands the critical ways in which our discipline is embedded in the world. If the AIA really wants, as the 2030 vision describes, to be “at the center of the world’s most urgent conversations,” that means speaking boldly, taking serious action, and not shying away from ending untenable relationships. It means that when statements are released, they need to actually say something.
What the AIA risks on its current path is constructing a towering edifice of nice words that ultimately stand for nothing at all.
You can, for example, get a free report from the AIA about Resiliency in the Built Environment, presented in partnership with Owens Corning.
49.6% Dem, 50.4% GOP, to be exact. Most years reflect this sort of near-even split.
I’d be happiest with no ArchiPAC donations to any individual candidates, although I recognize that position may not be shared by all.
As ArchiPAC did in 2020, with an additional $10,000 in total contributions over the past decade.