The AIA’s Tone-Deaf Response to the Election of Donald Trump

The 2016 U.S. presidential election was the most divisive since the Civil War. Not only did the winner lose the popular vote by almost two million votes, many who voted for him thought he was unqualified, but—somehow—more trustworthy than the loser. Turnout was down as both candidates had record “unfavorable” ratings.


After presidential elections, most national organizations issue a press release pledging to work with the incoming administration. But this was not every election. This was a cataclysmic break from reality, as most of us know it. So why would any professional association take a baseball bat to that beehive and issue any statement, pro or con? Well, my professional voice, the profession’s only national voice, the American Institute of Architects, did just that:


“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,” read the organization’s press release immediately following the election. “During the campaign, President-elect Trump called for committing at least $500 billion to infrastructure spending over five years. We stand ready to work with him and with the incoming 115th Congress to ensure that investments in schools, hospitals and other public infrastructure continue to be a major priority.”


Given the nature of the winning candidate (and the extremely controversial fact that his largest proposal for infrastructure spending was a multi-billion-dollar wall dividing Mexico and the United States), the response by architects was predictably immediate and angry. The Architects Newspaper was the loudest and earliest dissent: “We stand in opposition to the language in Ivy’s statement and in solidarity with the AIA membership that does not wish to be included in Ivy’s praise. Instead, we would like to guide our readers toward the AIA’s stated Diversity and Inclusion goals”


The response throughout the profession was so swift and overwhelming that the AIA was forced to issue a follow up. Unfortunately, the clarifying statement a few days later sounded like the sort of pablum one of Trump’s Miss Universe contestants might recite in the interview segment of the competition:


“We recognize that the current, post-election environment is unique and has aroused strong and heartfelt feelings within all communities, including that of AIA membership. In this context, our recent statement in support of design and construction’s future role with the new Administration has been viewed with concern by a number of our colleagues. The AIA, a bi-partisan organization with strong values, reasserts our commitment to a fair and just society, and also respects the right of each member to his or her political beliefs, knowing that we are all united in our desire to contribute to the well-being and success of our nation and our world.”


The cliche-ridden, make-up note did nothing to vitiate the essential tone-deafness of the original letter and sidestepped again the fact that they were addressing the most controversial, divisive and bigoted major presidential candidate in United States history.


All in the hopes…of what?


Securing more work for architects?


The essential message, even after the make-up press release, was pandering at its most superficial and cynical.


If the authors of AIA press release knew this election was “unique,” why issue a release in the first place? Given the demographics of the profession, the announcement was particularly clumsy and ham-fisted. Polls indicate that Americans with graduate degrees voted overwhelmingly for Clinton, so it’s safe to assume that most architects did not support Trump.


And beyond our demo, we know this guy: If there has ever been a candidate who holds architects in contempt, who values design as a way to make money solely for himself, who views architecture as a cost to be contained (often retroactively), it is President-elect Donald J. Trump.


Architects have felt the brunt of a long term economic and building downturn. Every AIA member knows that big architecture firms pay the vast majority of AIA dues and do virtually all of the large federal contracts. Advocating for federal spending on infrastructure makes sense—but not less than 24 hours after this wrenching contest. The damage done to the confidence of the AIA’s members in its leadership caused by this pandering is far greater than any possible benefit. Architects may be grossly underemployed; the technologies advancing through the profession may continue to dwindle jobs, but is it really worth dancing with the Donald in the vain hope that it somehow might generate work?


Beyond the political and moral outrage of its members, who in the AIA really thinks a suck-up letter will influence any president, let alone Trump? If the AIA had wanted to curry favor with politicians to directly benefit its members, why not just throw money at them, like the rapacious NRA?


Playing politics is dangerous business for any consensus organization, but lobbying groups have to engage in the process. This election evoked more fear and uncertainty than any in memory. It made any stock, business-as-usual, yada-yada-yada response an easily preventable error for the AIA.


Forget about the issues, for a moment, the character of the candidates, their respective visions for our country—the pro forma press release and CYA-response of the AIA to uncharted national anxiety and recrimination is about organizational competence. About 50,000 architects, in a tough economic climate, struggling to adapt to explosive technological changes, sacrificially give—year in, year out—to our profession’s one voice, the AIA, and it let us down.


Featured image via Unilad.


Update: Late last night AIA executive vice president and CEO, Robert Ivy, and AIA National President, Russ Davidson, issued a video apology for their “tone deaf” (in Ivy’s words) response to the election. 


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