Architecture & Ivy

18 months ago I wrote with astonishment (in the post copied below) that the AIA had refused to take a stand against its members designing execution chambers. This is the same AIA that rushed out an endorsement (and later a series of apologies) seen rightly as a plea to be included in the Trump administration, and of course the possibility of a piece of the infrastructure pork. 

The outrage over Robert Ivy’s endorsement is both precisely right and a bit late in coming. Donald Trump has been architecture’s and architect’s anti-hero for decades, so the notion of the AIA or its critics waiting until this moment to react is puzzling. Hillary even used an architect (a former colleague of mine when we both worked at Paul Segal’s office) in a long video piece describing Trump’s infamies.

As a background Trump has:

-Destroyed historic building artwork he promised to save in during the demolition of the Bonwit Teller building to build Trump Tower. The Ely Jacques Kahn building was hard enough to lose, but the destruction of the two enormous limestone reliefs was the insult added to injury: the panels were of “no artistic merit” according to the art historian Donald Trump.

-Sued an architect, and won, when the architect used a similar design for a subsequent residential tower. Trump won because he claimed that HE was the source of many of the design elements at Trump Plaza that made the non-Trump project plagiarism, and traded on his brand. This intimidation sets a dangerous precedent and was devastating to a single architect. 

-Left a trail of unpaid architects, contractors and subcontractors, tradespeople and other building related firms and people. Andrew Tesoro has become the poster child for Trump’s abuse of architects, but he is not alone. Many NYC developers will not work with anyone who has even worked for Trump.

-Built a series of buildings that are not only undistinguished, but have abused the public trust when, for example, placing a permanent restaurant over 42nd Street, well past the building line. The design of the buildings reflects the worst tendencies of a developer in New York City: boorish, garish, glitzy, aggressive and overly branded. Hats off to those stripping his name from their residences.

-Sued the Chicago Tribune architecture critic Paul Gapp for $500M when Gapp suggested that his tallest-in-the-world building proposed for Lower Manhattan was folly. Suppression of ideas, opinions and criticism is nearly as dangerous as suppression of votes. 

I could go on. The outrage is appropriate, and so is the question of exactly what to do about it. And where was the AIA when all of this was taking place? 

The AIA has always been a troubling organization. They have traded on the public perception that “AIA” following a name is the architectural equivalent to “M.D.” or “Ph.D”. It is not, but we as architects (and I include myself) have cynically used the AIA suffix for our own purposes.  While I have had virtually no real engagement with the AIA for the 35 years I have been a member, I pursued the FAIA recognition of Fellowship status for the same self-serving reasons. 

AIA is a 501 © 6 organization, a “business league” established for the improvement of business conditions. Its $60M budget is built on the membership dues of its 88,000 members. The NFL and PGA are 501©6 organizations. We shouldn’t be surprised that these organizations don’t live up to our expectations of providing a moral compass for its members. 

AIA is a lobbying organization. AIA sells the contracts that have defined the Architect/Client/Contractor relationship that keeps architects in a defensive (liability-phobic) posture. AIA refuses to speak out against ANY form of building including execution chambers. AIA was quick to supplicate itself to Trump because it is what AIA has always done. 

But it is wrong. Ivy should leave not because he made a mistake in assuming that his gesture was benign, but because the AIA cannot survive as an institution without guiding principles and the spine to support its core ethical tenets. 

Now more than ever we need the AIA to support those threatened by the new administration, not to cozy up to power. We need an AIA that encourages its members to act socially with the same sense of responsibility they exercise in the professional realm. That includes our fellow architects and the public at large whose wellbeing and safety we are licensed to protect. 

I admit to being slower to this call than some, but it seems clearer than ever; we must help design a society we are proud of, not simply chase the money promised for infrastructure. 

This means that the AIA may continue to be a lobbying organization, but its mission should be wider than the “business league” definition of a 501©6.
We need more from the AIA, and letting the Ivy conceal our flaws is as bad an idea for buildings as it is for our organization.

blog post from February 2015 after the AIA’s decision not to prohibit members from designing execution chambers:

Architecture & Death

The Problem

The New York Times article by Michael Kimmelman about the AIA’s rejection of an explicit code of ethics regarding society’s most heinous building types is a clear statement of exactly what is wrong with the AIA. Without a code that does more than vaguely reference ‘upholding human rights in all professional endeavors’ the AIA blurs precisely the line it should be clearly drawing.

Why would architects expect to be the respected members of a civil society they crave being, while claiming to be agnostic about the uses for which their buildings are designed? Should architects have a hand in building absolutely everything, no matter how destructive or degrading to human rights? Is nothing is out of bounds? Not death chambers, not concentration camps, not despot’s palaces? Absolutely everything is, if not excluded, endorsed by the AIA as appropriate for its members to proudly author.

While the AIA is spending significant marketing dollars to reposition the perception of architects in society, is it dodging a critical moral morass in its quest to reshape its member’s societal roles?

I am a Fellow of the AIA, a member for 35 years and I think it is squandering an opportunity to be seen as a standard of decency rather than a tool of any client’s need.

If the AMA prohibits prescribing death chamber lethal injections is it a leap for AIA to proscribe death chamber design? The AMA could argue that their involvement would alleviate suffering, but what possible role would architects play in alleviating execution chamber suffering? Better lighting; less bright acoustics?

There may be significant debate about nuclear power plants, about private prisons, about animal testing labs and even about border fences. But we hope that death chambers and concentration camps have no moral constituency. The AIA should strike its ambiguous code of ethics article referencing human rights if it can find no architecture that violates human rights. In this case the AIA supporting “personal choice” is like the “States Rights” argument for slavery.

This highlights, of course, both the best and the worst natural tendencies of any architect: we are doubly optimistic, believing we can improve (society, people’s lives, sustainability, etc.) with architecture, by holding dear the belief that good architecture can make absolutely any part of the built environment, no matter how debasing, incrementally better.

The line between design positively influencing society and designers naively dressing up every square inch of the world to ‘make the world a better place’ is elusive to some.

An Alternate Repositioning Manifesto

Aligning with the AIA approach to ethical dilemmas I offer a new manifesto:

We are Problem Solvers, able to make Anything Better, through Good Design and Award Winning Projects! Finally liberated from ethics and morality we can truly express ourselves in every possible category, and in every building and space. Every problem can be solved and every solution can make the world a better place.

Our new tag line could be:

“We make the unimaginable imaginable”

This means an entirely new set of categories in the various AIA Design Award Competitions held at the local, state and national levels:

-Best Detention Camp (subcategories; CIA Black Site, Most Overcrowded, Most Degrading)

-Best Face on the Worst Nation (subcategories; Oppressive Regimes, Olympic Facilities, North Korean)

-Best Warlord HQ (subcategories; Permanent, Nomadic, With and Without Torture Chambers)

-Extreme Housing (subcategories; Without Light and Air, Least Permanent, Highest Occupancy per Sq. Ft.)

-Most Dangerous (subcategories; Highest Casualty during Construction, Most Destructive of Life, Shortest Lifespan)


There are great examples, both serious and satirical, of architects in moral quandary from Monty Python’s “the Architect” sketch to “My Architect”. And there is a wonderful show at MAXXI in Rome until early March, “Architecture in Uniform” about the varieties of design and architecture prompted by war from Jeeps to Auschwitz and from Quonset Huts to the Pentagon.

Architecture has many ways to respond to the moral questions of the day, but simply declining to respond is not one of them. Philip Johnson may have flippantly quipped that “all architects are pretty much high class whores” but even sex workers draw the line somewhere.