No period in American history is easier to mythologize, or harder to understand, than the late 1960s. “If you can remember the 1960s, you probably weren’t there” remains true of Woodstock, perhaps, but it’s a glib phrase that belies a lot of the resonant work that architects, for one, did in the name of creating memorable change.

Beginning in 1969, a loose network of students, practitioners, and faculty who operated as The Architects’ Resistance (TAR) called attention to the social ethic of architectural practice. As a forthcoming book, The Architects’ Resistance (Common Room, 2014) by Christopher Barker and Anthony W. Schuman, AIA, will detail that ethic was the seed for today’s emphasis on public interest design.

“We wanted to be the conscience of the profession,” says Schuman, who co-founded TAR while a student at Columbia University in 1969, and who is currently an associate professor of architecture at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. “That’s probably exaggerated, but we wanted to raise those issues.”

TAR’s motivations included the antiwar and civil rights movements, along with what Schuman calls “the early stirrings of the community-design movement and the environmental movement.” TAR members critiqued the institutions of its profession—universities and architecture firms—for what they perceived to be systemic injustice that was keeping minority and disadvantaged students and workers out of the mainstream.

Their arguments did not appear in isolation. Whitney M. Young Jr., president of the National Urban League, chided the AIA in his keynote address at the 1968 AIA National Convention for its almost complete lack of diversity among members. “You are not a profession that has distinguished itself by your social and civic contributions to the cause of civil rights,” Young intoned. “You are most distinguished by your thunderous silence and your complete irrelevance.”

The AIA established the Whitney M. Young Jr. Award four years later, in 1972, to recognize those who challenge the profession to assume responsibility for social issues. But Young’s stinging indictment made it clear that the Institute was losing ground as a professional force. “There was a feeling that the AIA had been kind of asleep at the switch,” Schuman says. “A lot of us were radicalized while we were in architecture school, and our first impulse was to help improve society through our profession.”

Although Schuman characterizes TAR as more of “a floating meeting” than an organization with formal leadership, it had roots in campus activism and neighborhood advocacy. Barker, the book’s lead author and a doctoral student at Columbia University, points to the student occupation of buildings and general strikes at Columbia in April 1968 as a starting point, based in part on the university’s plan to build a gymnasium on public land in the adjacent Morningside Park.

TAR’s official formation occurred six months later at the AIA New England regional conference in New Haven, Conn. Colin “Topper” Carew was a visiting instructor at Yale—someone who, according to Schuman, “challenged students to probe the ethics of the profession they were about to enter”—and students from his fall seminar organized a walkout of the conference, unbeknownst to the AIA.

“The AIA was pleased to have them,” Barker notes, “but during the conference one of the students read a position paper on the importance of social justice, arguing that the profession needed to respond to this far more vigorously than it had been doing.” The walkout happened after the paper was read and TAR, for all intents and purposes, was born.

TAR held meetings, both formal and informal, but its main output remained sobering position papers such as “Architecture and Racism,” “Architects and the Nuclear Arms Race,” and “Architecture: Whom Does It Serve?”—their authors striving for a “very buttoned-down, white-paper format, carefully typeset and footnoted,” Barker says.

What gave these position papers teeth, ultimately, was the fact that they were pinned to very real and urgent actions of architecture firms as well as the AIA. TAR members picketed the New York offices of Skidmore, Owings, & Merrill (SOM) in 1969 for its design of the Carlton Center in apartheid-era Johannesburg, South Africa. They also organized counter-conferences, such as the one that took place in 1969 at the Boston Architectural Center on the same day a Boston workshop sponsored by the AIA and the Department of Defense’s Office of Civil Defense addressed the design of fallout shelters.

“We didn’t think the AIA’s participation was necessarily an endorsement of nuclear war,” Schuman recalls, “but it was both a practically and politically inadequate response.” Barker hastens to add that, in retrospect, SOM shouldn’t be reduced to the role of collaborationist villain in the 1960s. Its firm members were known to work with the Architects Renewal Committee for Harlem, a nonprofit community design firm led by J. Max Bond Jr., FAIA, among others. SOM also sponsored internship programs for disadvantaged minority youth at a number of their offices.

Within a few short months, however, TAR became a credible voice in the national debate about design, diversity, and social ethics—applying pressure and gaining student participation. In 1969 the AIA ran a full-page ad in The New York Times opposing America’s presence in Vietnam, and in 1970 a group of 10 architecture deans flew some of TAR’s organizers to Chicago to consult on ways to make the nation’s architecture schools more attuned to social change.

“TAR was very much of its time,” Schuman recalls—a time of nuclear dread, urban upheaval, storefront activism, and social division. TAR’s contribution centered on participatory democracy and “all the baggage that comes with endless meetings that were often very frustrating,” Schuman says. “It was a principled performance of what a democracy should be,” and its members grappled with the era’s persistent questions centered on whether to remain engaged with mainstream institutions or to create alternatives to organizations seen as out of touch. Those divergent tendencies eventually dispersed TAR’s energies and personnel, and the core group centered at Yale, Columbia, and MIT quietly disbanded in late 1969, although some TAR chapters continued for another year.

Four decades later, the approaches to practice that TAR fought for have become more common. Schuman downplays credit for this on behalf of TAR, but he acknowledges that in today’s practice landscape, there are echoes of the group’s platform to make architecture more equitable. To see that, all you have to do is survey some of the drivers of architectural discourse: exhibitions like “Small Scale, Big Change” at MoMA; initiatives such as the 1% through Public Architecture; conferences like the AIA Women’s Leadership Summit; and accessibility initiatives including the American Institute of Architecture Students’ Freedom by Design program.

“The bottom line,” says Schuman of what the past 40 years of architecture culture has produced, “is the impulse toward activism. And even if the task at hand seems enormous, it doesn’t mean you don’t engage it.”

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