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Why Architects Are Outraged Over a Letter to Trump

A message from the American Institute of Architects congratulating the president-elect stands accused of attempting to normalize his presidency.

Evan Vucci/AP

The American Institute of Architects wasted no time in congratulating President-elect Donald Trump on his victory a week ago.

On November 9, the day after the election, some 89,000 licensed architects and AIA members received an email from Robert Ivy, the organization’s CEO. The letter’s second sentence optimistically notes the $500 billion that President-elect Trump pledged during the campaign to spend on infrastructure. “We stand ready to work with him and with the incoming 115th Congress,” begins the third. (The full letter is below.)

By last week’s end, Ivy had a full-blown mutiny on his hand. The editorial board for The Architect’s Newspaper, writing in high dudgeon, posted a response condemning the AIA’s “conciliatory note” and the “tone, character, and appropriateness of Ivy’s memorandum.” The Newspaper passed along almost two-dozen co-signing statements, from top practitioners such as Florian Idenburg (of SO-IL) and Nader Tehrani (of NADAAA) to institutional and academic leaders in design. At least one architect has resigned his membership with the organization.

Marlon Blackwell—whose Fayetteville, Arkansas–based firm, Marlon Blackwell Architects, was named the top design firm in the country for 2016 by Architect magazine—describes Ivy’s statement as “too little, too soon.”

“I don’t even know what [Trump] means when he’s talking about infrastructure. I understand it as roads and schools, things of that nature,” Blackwell says. “What if it turns out what he’s talking about is walls and detention centers?”

The architect, who also received a 2016 National Design Award from the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, says that he appreciates what Ivy was trying to accomplish. He trusts Ivy’s intent. But by foregrounding the opportunity that an infrastructure bill could represent for architects, the AIA has set aside the many real differences between its own stated principles and those of the Trump campaign.

“I see this situation that’s happened as a kind of circumstance, and we’ll either be directed by circumstance or we’ll direct circumstance through our principles,” Blackwell says. “The principles of the AIA are clearly stated with regard to climate, diversity, affordable housing, gender pay equality.”

“Our values are firm,” Ivy says in an email. “We remain publicly committed to addressing climate change through sustainable design principles and are resolute in helping to foster a more diverse and inclusive profession. We support resilient communities, as well as federal investment in public infrastructure—buildings like schools, hospitals, and housing.”

Five women architects who make up Equity by Design, a committee of the San Francisco chapter of the AIA, posted an open letter to Ivy. Michael Sorkin, an award-winning architect and the architecture critic for The Nation, wrote a manifesto-length essay in response (“Architecture Against Trump”) that describes the AIA statement as “temperate, agreeable, indeed feckless.”

“While [Ivy’s] words appear anodyne and reflect the judicious position and celebration of America’s history of peaceful transitions of power articulated by both President Obama and Hillary Clinton, they are 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,” reads Sorkin’s message.

The AIA’s bylaws don’t allow the organization to endorse candidates or take official positions on political controversies, including prison design. A fairly straightforward statement such as Ivy’s letter (“It is now time for all of us to work together to advance policies that help our country move forward”) might not be out of place in another election.

“We are a bipartisan organization,” Ivy writes. “Nevertheless our mention of engagement with the new administration did cause anger and hurt, and for that, I have offered apology and regret.”

Ivy adds, “We did issue statements following both election victories for President Obama, as we have after State of the Union addresses and other situations we felt warranted our voice on how certain issues that the federal government is pursuing would affect the architecture profession.”

A number of issues raised by the Trump campaign contradict core beliefs held by many architects—and Ivy’s letter failed to address those points. First among them is climate change: What President-elect Trump has described as a hoax is one of the AIA’s most urgent policy priorities. The organization has asked its members and firms to commit to the AIA 2030 Commitment, a set of reporting standards for building-energy performance. The AIA’s own Committee on the Environment issued a letter, if not directly disagreeing with Ivy, then making its own priorities known.

On narrow policy issues, there may be room for agreement between architects and the Republican Party—on tax reform or tort reform, for example. But the AIA’s public policies and position statements include commandments on civil rights and diversity that do not appear to be in alignment with the GOP’s victorious president-elect.

Whatever else it accomplishes, Ivy’s letter elides those differences.

“There’s a rush to normalize things,” Blackwell says. “I’m leery of this being misread by this new administration that we’re somehow in agreement or just willing to set aside what we stand for.”

Here is the full letter from the AIA:

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. 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.

We also congratulate members of the new 115th Congress on their election. We urge both the incoming Trump Administration and the new Congress to work toward enhancing the design and construction sector’s role as a major catalyst for job creation throughout the American economy.

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.

About the Author

  • Kriston Capps
    Kriston Capps is a staff writer at CityLab. More

    Kriston Capps is a staff writer at CityLab, where he writes about housing, art and design. Previously, he was a senior editor at Architect magazine.