An Open Letter to AIA Executive Director Robert Ivy
Dear Mr. Ivy: For all its humanistic aspirations, architecture is usually perceived as having a particularly needy subservience to power and capital. Architects depend on access to capital to build. The American Institute of Architects seemed to meekly surrender to this condition in its quick post-election conciliatory statement, pledging that its 89,000 members would work with what promises to be an exceptionally corrupt and damaging presidency. The reaction of its members was equally swift, followed by letters of apology and resignation of the media relations director. Some members have called for your resignation, but there is a much better solution. As a professional association dedicated to advancement of the practice through standards, education, and advocacy, the AIA is not a traditional guild or union, otherwise it would be more conscious of its members’ power to collectively withhold their services in order to force change and represent its interests.
If architecture depends on capital, the inverse is also true: an enormous amount of capital depends on architecture. Construction represents $1.09 trillion of the U.S. economy, 6 percent of the total GDP in 2016, employing more than 6.3 million workers. Without architects, nothing gets built, land loses value, and few industries would expand or continue to function well. The AIA response should have been the exact opposite: we hereby refuse to participate in the economy and withdraw the rights to produce our work until you meet our demands. This is precisely what artists threatened in New York City in September 1961 when the city began to crack down on illegal live/work commercial lofts. Within months, the City Council passed the first Artist-in-Residence law.
The demands could be limited to issues relevant to the AIA’s mission and still be enormously effective leverage in relation to threats posed by the incoming administration: its bylaws include such expansive goals as “to coordinate the building industry and the profession of architecture to insure the advancement of the living standards of people through their improved environment” and “to make the profession of ever-increasing service to society.” [my emphasis]
For an industry that depends on immigrant labor, architects would be justified in striking to protect the rights of the millions of workers who realize their work. For a professional association that suffers from an extreme lacks of diversity and wishes to change that, it could have issued a statement denouncing the hate speech, harassment of women, gays, gender non-conforming people, non-whites, Jews, and Muslims encouraged by the incoming administration’s election campaign. Architects have an interest in the impact of health care costs on their offices—typically small businesses that are directly affected by cyclical economic shifts: the AIA should demand preservation and expansion of affordable health care and reinforcement of the social safety net.
The goal of advancement of living standards and improvement of environment would justify architects strongly supporting demands for tribal sovereignty and protection of the Standing Rock Indian Reservation against a dangerous pipeline through its watershed, liable to be restarted under the new administration. The appointment of Ben Carson, woefully unqualified to head of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, may be the most direct affront to the profession: architects should demand the agency be run by someone with professional credentials or knowledge about building. And given their decades-long commitment to improved environmental standards and the potential harm of climate change to hundreds of millions of people, the AIA should demand that the head of the Environmental Protection Agency not be a climate change denier. Investment in infrastructure is critical to the national wellbeing, as the AIA affirmed in its post-election letter, but it cannot reasonably be done without taking into account growing climate-related hazards.
Will architects build anything billionaires throw money at, or will they realize their collective power as agents of change? Artists are increasingly mobilizing to voice opposition and have called for a strike against the incoming administration. The president-elect gained a large part of its limited credibility through the work of architects and their contractors. It’s not too late for the American Institute of Architects and its members to take a stand.