The Unsettling Implications of the American Institute of Architects’ Memo Supporting Trump

After the CEO of the American Institute of Architects stated the organization promised to work with Donald Trump, many architects — both AIA members and not — were pissed.

Trump protest in New York City (image via mal3k on Wikimedia Commons)

To many architects, the 2016 presidential campaign has brought a reckoning of professional values. Just one day after the election, on November 9, the American Institute of Architects issued a statement to its some 89,000 members in response to the election of Donald Trump. Authored by CEO Robert Ivy, the statement reads, in part:

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.

Ivy rounds off the statement with: “This has been a hard-fought, contentious election process. It is now time for all of us to work together to advance policies that help our country move forward.” As it turned out, many architects — both AIA members and not — were pissed.

“Seething at this complacent message from the #AIA. This is not business as usual,” tweeted architect, AIA-member, and University of Buffalo professor Joyce Hwang. Some architects threatened to not renew their membership in protest; some, as Maryland-based architect Fritz Read did very publicly, resigned.

As a community-based advocacy organization, the AIA lobbies on the local, state, and federal level for the architecture profession’s representation and key values: namely, diversity and sustainability. The organization is staunchly nonpartisan, but as Ivy’s letter shows, treading that line in the Trump era is nearly impossible: the context being so toxic, that to members, “business as usual” equates to banal acquiescence.

Michael Sorkin, architecture critic for The Nation, denounced the letter as “an embarrassment to those of us who feel that the Trump presidency represents a clear and present danger to many values that are fundamental to both our nation and our profession.” Some architects were outraged enough to invoke the memory of Albert Speer, chief architect for Adolf Hitler, when considering the implications of the AIA’s statement.

Now, if ever, is the time to take a stand. Michael Kimmelman, architecture critic for the New York Times, tweeted: “Shocked @AIANational would evoke Obama to excuse its thoughtless pandering to Trump. When will profession own up to its ethical obligations?” Just because Obama called for a peaceful and democratic transition, doesn’t mean the AIA should roll over for Trump. 

Issued hastily by the CEO without consultation with constituents, the letter was an extra-stinging slap in the face to many dues-paying members on democratic principle, who felt the AIA had failed to assert their professional values — the same that were threatened by the President-elect’s express rejection of climate change, and his perpetuation of xenophobic rhetoric. Chicago-based architect Katherine Darnstadt, who started the #NotMyAIA hashtag in protest of Ivy’s letter, tweeted “@AIANational pledging membership will ignore sexism & racism for a few infrastructure dollars. Spineless.”

Others took the #NotMyAIA fervor a step further, evidencing the letter as just another sign of how out of touch the AIA is — in particular, its antitrust compliance policy, which some architects have begun to push back against.

The #NotMyAIA turmoil was enough to elicit two statements of apology by CEO Robert Ivy in just over a week, and a letter of resignation from the AIA’s Senior Director of Media Relations, but it’s hard to imagine that the wound has healed. Local AIA chapters from LA to Baltimore issued public statements disavowing Ivy’s, as did many non-AIA architectural organizations within professional and academic communities, including the Open Architecture Collaborative (which grew out of the now-defunct Architecture for Humanity), the Equity Alliance, and the Architecture Lobby, “a collective of architectural workers advocating for the value of the labor required to design, construct and occupy architecture.”

Insofar as the $500 billion for infrastructure spending mentioned in Ivy’s letter, architects would be right to be suspicious insofar as what that actually means for them. Besides promising extensive tax cuts to private companies for investing in certain infrastructure (which they would then own), Trump has been very vague as to which projects in particular he would focus on — except, of course, one of his campaign’s biggest rallying points. “His only real promise is a border wall that will serve little more than a symbol to repudiate Latinos,” architect and educator Quilian Riano, who is also a “facilitator” for the Architecture Lobby, told me via email. “I had actually just become an Associate AIA member after seven years of becoming eligible,” Riano explained. “This controversy reinforced why I waited so long, I am not sure the AIA represents me and my needs. This controversy has made it clear that the AIA does not know how to serve its changing membership.” Not to mention, Trump’s alleged record of stiffing his own architects might just be enough to scare some practitioners straight when it comes to his development promises.

Trump Tower, New York City (image via Brad on Flickr)

While #NotMyAIA is a fresh wound, the controversy also raised long-simmering resentments within the architecture community, regarding the organization’s ethical and political responsibilities. The Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility (ADPSR) has for years been after the AIA to adopt a more stringent Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct, specifically “to prohibit the design of spaces for killing, torture, and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.” Shortly after Ivy’s statement in tacit support of Trump, ADPSR launched a petitition demanding the AIA “prohibit member participation in projects intended to violate human rights.” In the architecture community in general, larger discussions regarding professional design ethics have cropped up in response to the spatial implications of transgender persons’ access to public bathrooms, solitary confinement and capital punishment, and open-carry laws. Additionally, the highly publicized death of Pritzker Prize-winning architect Zaha Hadid earlier this year stirred the pot of contention regarding architects’ work under autocratic regimes.

As the media has been exhaustively reporting, Trump’s election has galvanized much organizing and soul-searching regarding the ethics of professional cooperation, architecture being just one example. It remains to be seen how that search will continue, and evolve, towards substantive change.

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