spacey et al

The AIA’s Response to Crisis: Call in the Stars!

In a massive spam campaign this winter, the AIA sent my now crashed Inbox scores of emails screaming: “AIA 2016 KEYNOTE: KEVIN SPACEY.” Only the lack of an exclamation point left the full-on huckster in the cage. Following that, the next wave of promotion was “BACON BROTHERS AT AIA.”  I was thinking noisome music redolent of life’s great temptation: salt and fat in a crunchy bite-able package. But no, it was Kevin Bacon! (And his brother.)

Then, tragedy struck: the speech—one that would reveal why, oh WHY, Kevin Spacey is talking to the one national assembly of a profession in deep malaise in the bull’s eye of the worst economy since the Depression—was cancelled.

Of course someone came to their senses, you might think, an architect, or venerated thought leader would address a profession in deep doo-doo with insights, uplifting words, or at least really cool images of cutting edge coolness.


Enter Elaine Benes—I mean Julia Louis-Dreyfus—who would replace the spaced-out Spacey. She had, apparently, built a really cool house.

There is a disturbance in The Force: architecture is losing jobs to technology, losing graduates to barristaship, and relevance to everyone else. The AIA gets it: How do you fight irrelevance? With star power! If you can’t book a former president, you can at least book an actor who plays one on TV!

It was worse for me because I am attending. Not for Julia or Kevin, both wonderful actors by the way, but to pick up one of these. So, in addition to the barrage of announcements everyone else received, I got the attendees’ spam as well.

But there’s more: to actually collect my award, and spend an unending hour or 3 until it was given in a room in Philadelphia, I got to pay $100 for a convention “ticket”—and just $25 for my wife, who opted to miss the fun and games.

I joined the AIA about 12 years ago because they honored a book I wrote with their second ever AIA Imprint, or rather the AIA would honor it if, reasonably, I was a member. I was OK with that as I had spoken before many local AIA chapters, been on number of AIA design awards juries, and won a few of their awards. I was even asked to head what became the AIA Custom Residential Architects Network (CRAN), but declined as I had just founded its alternative, Congress of Residential Architecture (CORA), perhaps a bad choice as that group lives on and CORA is now but a fleeting glimpse.

Now I have been nominated to be a Fellow in the AIA: truly an honor as other Connecticut architects thought I was eligible for that distinction. So I will pay hundreds more to apply, and perhaps thousands to execute my application.

But in my tiny place in a tiny profession, there are the large questions for our entire early 21st century culture: In times of existential threat do we address the reasons for the shift to uncharted and threatening realities—or do we engage in denial?

The AIA never gives up its membership history: through extreme forensic efforts I got tertiary data that membership that was north of 90,000 in 2007 was down almost 20% when I submitted our CORA’s Position Paper to the 2009 National Convention. Maybe membership is up since the great meltdown…who knows?

But when your response to change and a threatened present, let alone a hopeful future, is Big Boffo Stars, you’re either distracting yourself, or trying to simulate relevance by getting meat in the seats for a show.

Or you’re nominating a Presidential Candidate.


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