Fifty Shades of Dismay

I’m not a fan of the AIA. There’s an Elks Club quality to it, and the people who work their way up its elected-leadership ladder often seem to be compensating for deficits elsewhere and/or preening on a bigger stage. Like any national organization, the AIA reflects the localities from which it draws membership. It has its Tea Party as well as its sophisticated urban chapters.

Recently, the AIA declined to accept an amendment to its ethics code that would have taken facilities for torture, execution, and prolonged isolation off the table for its architect members. The SF chapter, to which I belong, supported the measure, which was brought forward by the ADPSR. In a letter explaining its refusal, the AIA pointed to potential anti-trust and enforcement problems. “The AIA Code of Ethics should not exist to create limitations on the practice by AIA members of specific building types,” wrote AIA 2014 President Helene Combs Dreiling, quoting the special panel that considered and rejected the measure. It was the wrong decision.

Perception meets reality.

In the court of public opinion, your rationale is worth less than zero if your actions belie your words. The aging roué Dominique Strauss-Kahn, in the dock in France, told the court that he was “busy saving the world,” so unaware of the details of the sex parties he joined “only four times a year.” When a woman on the receiving end testified in detail about his party habits, perception and reality collided, leaving Strauss-Kahn nervously studying his watch and whispering to his attorney. Reading this in The Times last week, the AIA’s flimsy, legalistic letter to the ADPSR came to mind.

A few years ago, one of the American hikers that Iran detained, returned to the USA on humanitarian grounds (she had cancer), took up the cause of banning prolonged isolation. Having experienced it herself, she correctly described it as torture. Ever since 9/11, but undoubtedly before then, too, the US government has resorted to torture and summary, extra-judicial murder on the grounds of national security. We are all party to its actions, which are taken in our name by governments we elected. They are “busy saving the world.” Meanwhile, most US states have death rows. Facing problems with lethal injection, several plan to revive the electric chair and firing squad.

Becoming what we condemn.

The resolution that ADPSR put forward is a finger in the dike, but it’s our finger—our opportunity as a field to speak out against powers that torture and kill, judicially and extra-judicially, without much compunction. The AIA’s refusal endorses these powers and ignores the wishes of many of its urban constituents. It privileges business-as-usual and displays cowardice.

One precedent is Albert Speer. His defense did not impress the Nuremberg judges or history, and his condemnation is relevant to the AIA: the failure to act isn’t a trivial matter when issues of real import are at stake. Heidegger is another precedent, perhaps more relevant—a celebrated philosopher whose work is tainted by his traffic with the Nazis. They share a moral blindness.

The appalling figure of Dominique Strauss-Kahn emerges from French politics. That he’s in court may reflect a change in his political fortunes, but in a broader sense, it reflects a changing narrative about politics itself. “Saving the world” is no longer a cover story for deplorable behavior. (He is charged with organizing the parties for profit, but it appears instead that he was offered them as a matter of bribery and influence, like Berlusconi.) Washington isn’t Paris, but it’s still a political capital—a parallel universe that often mistakes institutional power and prerogative for reality. The AIA is part of it and its failure to act is symptomatic of the prevailing mindset.

As citizens, we’re exposed to conflicting narratives about how to confront real and dangerous problems that are often of our own making. There are no simple answers, but there are some fairly clear choices. One of them is how we will conduct ourselves, how we will live and work, despite everything. With national security, for example, the cure may be worse than the disease. If we find ourselves justifying torture and murder, we are what we condemn.

Responding to non-action.

The AIA did not of course justify torture and murder. Its failure to act is a step back from that, but the perception—my perception—is that it turns a blind eye to our field’s complicity in the current madness, the depravity. As a member of an urban chapter, I see four possible responses, in this order:

First, urban (and similarly enlightened) chapters should endorse the ADPSR’s resolution and make it clear to their members that they’re holding them to a higher ethical standard. (See note 2, below. The AIA apparently anticipated the potential for local dissent on ethics by making its code the only standard.)
Second, urban chapters should reintroduce the ADPSR measure and demand a new vote.
Third, if the AIA refuses and/or if the vote fails again, the urban chapters should withdraw.
Fourth, if none of the above actions happen, individual members should resign from the AIA and/or the chapters, depending on their affiliation.

Break down the walls.

We’re in that moment of sea change that catches out the unreconstructed, like Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who try to live on as if nothing has happened. There’s such visible compartmentalization today, yet its contradictions are constantly, even instantly exposed. Individually and collectively, we live intimately with this dissonance. It can make us crazy or prompt us to act.

If the latter, then what’s needed is real debate about the shape this new world will take. Architects should be at the heart of it, pressing for reform up and down the line. The urban chapters, spurred by activism at their doors, are responding. The AIA is MIA. The need to take concrete action on an issue this fundamental eludes it: a moral blindness. If the blindness persists, then it’s time to opt for something with relevance and courage.


  1. AIA: American Institute of Architects, referring to the national organization, headquartered in Washington, D.C. There are also state and territorial organizations (including Puerto Rico) and local—urban and regional—chapters within and outside the USA.
  2. Jennifer Jones, the executive director of AIA/SF, told me that it’s precluded by its agreement with the AIA from having a code of ethics that varies from the national code. Time for a new agreement.
  3. ADPSR: Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility. The ADPSR’s petition is here. (ADPSR Director Raphael Sperry published an advocacy piece for the petition on CNN.)
  4. The AIA’s letter to ADPSR, with ADPSR’s annotations, is here.
  5. Michael Kimmelman’s wonderful article on this same topic is here. Mimi Zeiger also wrote about twice for Architectural Review, here and here.
  6. The photo above, taken by AFP and posted on Google Images, shows a feminist protestor confronting Dominque Strauss-Kahn in Lille.
Like what you read? Give John J. Parman a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.