“I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member,” Groucho Marx claimed. So would he have joined the AIA? If the AIA asked him only to pay his dues, the answer would still be “No.” Marx gets interested only if there are higher standards than that. If the AIA wants to really capture the interest of existing and potential members in the interests of a higher standard, it must resolve a deep philosophical rift that has developed within its membership.
One faction of members believes that the AIA should have a low threshold for membership and welcome as many licensed architects as possible. That’s strength in numbers. Another faction thinks the AIA should have a high threshold and welcome architects willing to get behind certain, shared values. That’s strength in unity.
Before an organization can successfully reposition, it helps to understand its starting position. The case for strong numbers means that members practice according to whatever individual values they may have and that the AIA merely endorses the resulting collection of practices. Yet, early outcomes from the AIA’s Repositioning research point to a consequence of this fragmented organizational stance: “Providing professional support for the practice of architecture … has not been enough to make the organization truly remarkable or distinctive.” But what if increased numbers also meant increased unity, and both factions could have what they want?
In 1990, a college student named Wendy Kopp decided she would turn her senior thesis on the problems of American public education into a solution. She asked 500 graduating seniors to spend two years teaching in the toughest classroom conditions imaginable. How did Kopp manage to attract anyone to this unattractive task? She used a counterintuitive strategy: Instead of making it easy to be selected, she made it difficult, requiring all applicants to meet very strict standards and effectively making it a privilege to teach under those conditions. Today, Kopp’s organization, Teach For America, recruits around 5,000 college seniors every year but receives nearly 50,000 applications, suggesting that raising the threshold may actually increase the crowds wanting to come through the door.
Couldn’t the same hold true for thresholds at the AIA? In fact, rejecting a great rift can not only strengthen a professional organization internally, it also secures its moral power and therefore its external relevance and power. This multiplier effect relates to the ethical obligation of all professions to define shared values. Ethically speaking, a true profession is not just a collection of people, but a covenant among them.
It is the power of this covenant that allows an ethically unified profession to assert its values over ethically diffused political and economic forces that would otherwise have far more power. The moral values of architecture certainly deserve this kind of authority, since they safeguard the public welfare. The profession, of course, already has unity around licensure standards. An architect joins the profession by attaining those standards. Joining something presumes there is something to join. So would standards above licensure inspire architects to join the AIA? Marx is giving us the answer. People want to be part of something bigger than themselves. Inspiration comes from aspiration. If the AIA can agree to take a position, it may just become a club that even Groucho Marx would want to join.
Learn more about the 21st century AIA at aia.org/repositioning.