The deadline for architects to pay membership dues to their national professional organization, the American Institute of Architects, came and went on January 15. It was the first time since the AIA released a controversial statement in support of Donald Trump that members had to decide whether to renew their membership. And for some, it was a chance to demonstrate their dissatisfaction with the organization–by declining.
After the conciliatory tone of AIA, CEO Robert Ivy’s letter on November 9 addressing the Trump administration on behalf of members, some architects announced they would not renew their membership to the organization and urged others to follow suit. It’s still unknown how many architects followed through with the action since memberships don’t officially lapse until March 31; the AIA has said it will not have 2017 figures to release until early April.
In the meantime, Co.Design spoke with three architects, each of whom has been a vocal critic of the AIA’s response to the new administration, about whether they renewed their memberships. All three had different answers and different reasoning, but seemed to agree that, even before the election controversy, the AIA was not proving its worth to the architecture community. Unfortunate as the circumstances may be, this November’s upheaval brought about an opportunity for architects and the AIA to redefine the organization’s role in today’s world.
As those following the debacle will know, the original statement from the AIA caused a flood of criticism from the architecture community, which responded with letters, press releases, and social media posts—criticism that two apologies from Ivy did little to quash. For many, not renewing their membership was a clear way to send a message to the current leadership that they were unhappy about the letter and subsequent fallout. But for others, remaining united under the AIA umbrella, rather than letting their community fracture, seemed like the necessary route toward effective change.
It’s important to note that it is not unusual for the AIA to issue a statement in response to presidential elections. In November, the architecture news website Archinect examined the letters the organization released in 2008 and 2012 after the election of President Obama to determine if the AIA had responded objectively differently. They found that while the two previous letters were also essentially form letters expressing to the incoming administration that the AIA will work with it, they were more specific in laying out specific policies the AIA supported—such as efforts to make federal buildings less reliant on fossil fuels, or enacting tax policies that support small businesses.
Trump’s administration gave the current AIA CEO, Ivy, little by way of specifics to respond to. Yet architects angered by the letter and its blanket support of the then-president-elect had no trouble being precise about where their values differed from Trump’s. They pointed toward Trump’s promise to build a wall along the border with Mexico, his characterization of climate change as a “hoax,” and the Trump organization’s history of discrimination in its properties and alleged fleecing of architects and contractors as running counter to the architecture community’s core values. Some framed their opposition as being based on a professional support of fundamental human and civil rights, and a belief that Trump’s approach to design actively hurts people.
Not only did the AIA’s letter gloss over these deeply divisive issues to pledge commitment to “working with President-elect Trump to address the issues our country faces”—it also did so on their behalf. “It should have been a strong letter of protest and disagreement,” says architect Toshiko Mori, a professor at Harvard and the principle of her eponymous firm. “It should have stated a leadership role of AIA in assisting to define what infrastructure means and how to proceed to implement and improve it.” Still, Mori’s firm renewed its membership to the AIA because she believes that a united architecture community will be stronger than a divided one. Ultimately, she says, the benefit of the AIA is that it is a broad, national platform, and architects should use it to challenge the new administration’s destructive policies.
However for Sean Billy Kizy, an associate at SHoP Architects in New York, the AIA’s lack of conviction was a major factor in his decision not to renew his AIA membership this year. “The AIA was not critical in the way they handled this issue,” he says. “They were not thoughtful in their response.” The two apologies, he says, came off like “another default comment.”
Kizy had been feeling equally unimpressed with AIA programming, networking opportunities, and professional support for members. Even with SHoP paying his dues (the firm covers AIA fees for registered architects), Kizy says AIA membership was not worth the cost. Canceling was a way of sending a message to the organization after the election controversy, but ultimately he didn’t feel like he was leaving much behind.
When I spoke to Mette Aamodt of the Cambridge-based architecture firm Aamodt/Plumb Architects, she echoed Kizy’s sentiments, saying that the AIA “hasn’t made its value case to its members—and certainly not to its younger members.”
Directly after the election, Aamodt was vocal in article comments and on social media in calling for Robert Ivy’s resignation. Two weeks ago, she and her partner Andrew Plumb published a press release from the firm urging architects to cancel their membership if their values were not reflected in Ivy’s original letter. But another major factor in her decision not to renew was that she couldn’t justify the value of the organization for its members.
Both Kizy and Aamodt sent the AIA letters criticizing the post-election statement and explaining why they were canceling their membership for 2017, and they both received responses from the AIA asking them to reconsider. In Kizy’s letter, AIA president Russell Davidson wrote that he regretted the harm the statement caused to members of the architecture community, but also hoped Kizy “will grow to understand that one misstatement does not change the mission and values of the AIA and its almost 160-year history.” He also attached a new guidance document from the board of directors that confirms the AIA’s commitment to diversity, inclusion, gender equality, sustainability, and resilience.
According to Aamodt, the AIA suggested in its letters to her that she could do more to change the direction of the AIA by working with rather than against the organization. Yet unlike Mori, Aamodt feels that the AIA needs to make a meaningful gesture by asking Ivy to resign and changing the leadership to be more diverse. She also feels the AIA needs to take a stronger position for advocating for inclusiveness and against tyranny, exploitation, and discrimination.
Kizy, who has a LEED credential and is interested in green building practices, wants the AIA to take a stronger stance on environmental sustainability. “As a younger architect, I have less influence on how green a building is and what materials are used,” he says. “I really rely on national momentum for clients to request for their buildings to be green.” Both Aamodt and Kizy would rejoin the AIA if they saw these changes in its messaging and internal operations.
Mori agrees that the AIA needs to revise its role in the architecture community, and suggests that it’s an optimal time to press for change as the organization tries to redeem itself. She says the AIA can do that by taking up a leadership role as a critic for or against decisions being made at a federal level, and disseminating information about how architects can participate in petitions, discussions, and forums as individuals. (The professional graphic design association AIGA/NY, is doing something similar with its Citizen! Designer! Now! initiative.) “They are in D.C.–they can be vigilant about many policy changes and platform proposals being made and inform membership in a timely manner on issues that will affect environment, society, human rights, and community life,” she says.
As the Trump administration starts to get specific about its housing, infrastructure, and climate policies, the AIA will have a greater chance to show where it stands. As Mori, Aamodt, and Kizy agree, it should use its prominence as a national organization to mobilize the community around policies affecting the built environment.
But when it comes to how to ensure the organization does this, architects are split—unite to spur change from within, or protest by leaving the organization for now?