AIA, Architects, and Architecture: The Struggle for Relevance

In a bucolic rural setting one hot Sunday afternoon this July, a group of Michigan architects gathered to discuss the future of their local AIA (American Institute of Architects) chapter.  In some form or another, this conversation is happening all across the United States: a crisis in fate and faith of architects in “their” group, and the chance to choose a new path that should feel like opportunity and instead feels kind of gloomy.

About 25% of the AIA Huron Valley component convened to talk about our future.

About 25% of the AIA Huron Valley component convened to talk about our future.

Some facts:

  • In 2013, the AIA conducted an exhaustive survey of members and nonmembers about the perceived value of the organization.  What benefits were they offering that were of value to folks?  What weren’t they offering?  What were they offer that was not bringing benefit?
  • As a result of the survey, the organization determined in 2014 to make structural changes at every level – local, state, and national – to reduce regional inconsistencies in member value.
  • In October 2015, all Michigan AIA chapters, or officially “components”, will have to vote on whether they want to be classified as “components” or “sections”.
  • A “component” entails a part- or full-time staff member, and requires 300-500 members at a minimum to support.  It has a voting voice in the AIA and is represented on the AIA Michigan Board.
  • A “section” is essentially a themed social club: members pay national and state but no local dues and in return receive limited control over their own funds and no voice in governance.
  • 80% of chapters nationally and 10 out of Michigan’s 11 chapters do not meet AIA National’s definition of “chapter”, and so will automatically get categorized as a “section” unless they take measures to A) work with National to change the definition or B) work together with other Michigan sections to combine and meet the definition.

The struggle of the AIA is reflective of the larger architect population, and that of architecture in general: the struggle for real and perceived relevance, the struggle both to provide value and for that value to be perceived by its clients and members.

Unfortunately, the AIA’s strategy seems consistently to be that of exclusion.  As with their recent strenuous objection to classifying international practitioners as architects (without necessarily having done due diligence in doing so), so they are reducing the number of people who have access to national benefits while placing an undue burden on regional chapters to both define and deliver their own value propositions, without providing any additional resources for doing so (and, in Michigan’s case, also reducing the governing board’s size by 37%, meaning that underrepresented areas will be even MORE underrepresented after the change).

By the mere fact of the survey and its conclusion, the American Institute of Architects has good intentions, and practitioners everywhere will benefit with a solution that truly does raise both the perceived and the true level of services being provided to all of its members.  Unfortunately, and a little alarmingly, it seems to be mandating bootstrapped changes without having found that solution.  Architects and architecture still find themselves in search of the professional network they deserve.

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