AIA Convention 2017: Message Over Substance?


AIA Convention 2017: Message Over Substance?

The tenor of the sessions, keynotes, and discussions at the AIA conference this year seemed markedly different from those of recent memory. Issues of diversity, equity, inclusion, and “social-impact design” were front and center. The convention was keynote-heavy, with appearances by Francis Kéré, Michael Murphy of MASS Design Group, and “The Hip Hop Architect” Michael Ford, to name a few, as well as Michelle Obama in her first public appearance as a private citizen.

Many of these keynotes were, in effect, a sales pitch for progressive values. But the thunderous applause of the audiences at the keynotes indicated that the vast majority of the 16,000 architects at the convention didn’t need to be convinced that race and gender equity and working for the social good are important. After all, architecture is a profession that draws those who want to build something positive in the world—a fact corroborated in several sessions that highlighted survey data indicating the importance of doing meaningful work on a daily basis to employee retention.

So while the inspiration and earnestness of the keynote presenters can not be put to question, a cynical observer could be forgiven for believing that the whole event was a calculated response to the outcry over Robert Ivy’s posts election comments. Regardless of intent, the PR slick felt like the AIA preaching to a choir that had begun to doubt its pastor’s faith. The real lost opportunity of the convention, then, was asking the question: Why, if we do as a profession hold these values dear, do we have such a problem putting them into practice?

An earnest exploration of that question is by definition complex, difficult, unsexy—a fact that was revealed during a smaller keynote follow-up session with Alejandro Aravena, Francis Kéré, and Michael Murphy. When asked by Rosa Sheng (a leader of the excellent Equity by Design group) how these architects had made doing social impact architecture a viable business model the response from Murphy was clear: “It’s not.” This bold admission was followed by each of the panelists describing the torturous journeys they’ve embarked on to make projects aimed at the greater good part of their practice. In spite of Murphy’s pleas to retire the phrase “social architecture” to avoid creating a false divide, the tensions between the current economic structure of architecture and the desire to embrace a more expansive notion of who we serve was a real, but never more than nascent, backdrop to the discussion.

This session above all demonstrated the long-term failure of the AIA. It’s not that architects don’t want to do work that benefits the entirety of the public or solve architects’ demographic crisis. Rather, it’s that structural problems in society and in the economics of architectural practice create immense barriers to translating intent into outcomes. We don’t need convincing. We need the resources we’ve pooled together in our largest professional organization to start to address the things we can’t alone, the things we can’t with a single project. We need to confront the crisis of value in architectural work that renders us subservient to developer logics that thrive on the inequity we claim to stand against and render moot the commitment to the public implied by licensure.

On that score, the national AIA clearly remains at a total loss. They might understand a problem exists but their inability to diagnose its systemic roots means their solutions are woefully inadequate. A case in point was when AIA president Tom Vonier introduced Amy Cuddy with a line that held great promise: “to confront these [social] issues we need to know our own value.” However, any hope for a substantive dialogue on the subject was erased as Cuddy proceeded to talk about how power poses increase perceptions of self-worth for the better part of half an hour. While I don’t doubt the importance of good posture, some comments from Twitter noted the shortcomings of this approach. @_YoungCommodity satirically noted, “oh our profession is definitely undervalued by the general public [because] there’s a perception that architects sit hunched over and not upright.” User @sekucci referenced Cuddy’s riff on the relation of sexism to posture and wrote “Amy Cuddy, speaker at #AIACon17 explains teaching girls power poses to solve inequity. Hasn’t mentioned teaching sexist men not to be sexist.”

A shallowness of discourse also pervaded the majority of sessions covering non-technical issues at the conference, many of which had promising titles that hinted at the larger issues (things like “Win More Work: Communicate Your Value,” “Attracting and Retaining Talent,” and “Big Data, Civic Hacks, and the Quest for a New Utopia”). In most instances, the content on offer was limited to a panoply of buzzwords or “tips and tricks.” This is a profession in danger of losing its relevance to all but the most decadent corporate and wealthy clients—where are the sessions on that? Where are the sessions on figuring out how we can increase the pitifully small percentage of buildings designed by an architect?

That isn’t to say there weren’t silver linings. Discussions with the apparatchiks from some state and local AIA components as well as officials from the other architecture collateral organizations (particularly NCARB) revealed a more robust understanding of the issues facing architecture and good faith efforts to address them with new initiatives, like the integrated path to licensure. It’s hard to say what makes this architectural deep state so much more in tune with the larger needs of the profession, but one could surmise it is the result of a more intimate knowledge of how the legal and regulatory frameworks surrounding licensure and state practice acts can be shaped to create real change in the structure of the profession. For this middle layer of officialdom, these laws are not immutable facts of existence but the battleground for defending and defining what is we do as architects and how it is valued.

Likewise, the “emerging professional” leadership of the AIA, are for the most part clear-eyed about the ways in which a culture of overwork and under compensation are turning away potential future architects in droves. Similarly, small practitioners voiced concerns in the handful of sessions tailored to them about struggling financially and being left voiceless in the AIA, despite making up nearly 80 percent of the membership.

The conference remains an important venue for bringing together the many diverse constituencies of architectural practice and taking the pulse of the discipline. If there is a conclusion to be drawn from this year’s events it that in spite of all the talk about “leadership,” the national AIA will not be the force behind sweeping changes in architecture. In a striking parallel to the failures of liberal institutions in 2016, we have on our hands an organization that smugly conflates messaging with real solutions and says all of the right things but is one step out of touch with the struggles of being a working architect.

Next year’s convention will mark the fifty year anniversary of Whitney Young Jr.’s famous keynote where he excoriated the profession over our lack of action on issues of racial and social justice. He received a standing ovation then as he would today—underscoring that the profession’s failures do not lie in our world view. The 2018 event will be a chance to see if the AIA can make a leap from a progressive affect to progressive action; a leap from positive-but-reactive piecemeal initiatives to a compelling forward-looking outlook and sweeping plan for an architecture that is relevant and helpful to society-at-large. If they don’t, we may be looking back in another fifty years, stuck in the same place, at an era where most of us did little more than applaud all the right things.

Keefer Dunn is a nearly-licensed architect based in Chicago. In addition to being adjunct faculty at the IIT College of Architecture, he serves as the national organizer for The Architecture Lobby, a labor advocacy organization for architects, and is the host of Buildings on Air, a radio show about politics and architecture.