Created under the guidance of resident fellow James A. Scheeler, a new database of AIA history tracks the substantive discussions, resolutions, and debates that have occurred at AIA conventions, beginning with the first recorded meeting in 1867. The database will launch on Feb. 4 at aia.org.
In the e-history, nearly 3,000 entries—organized by year and cross-referenced by searchable categories—provide unique insights into American architectural culture. Sometimes comic in retrospect (for instance, members began complaining about the amount of dues payments as early as 1869), the entries also document the AIA's role as an advocate for architectural education, building codes, public outreach, licensure, and urban planning.
These few excerpts offer a sample from the mass of information that is sometimes tedious, often fascinating—but always germane to the formation of the profession.
The Washington Monument
The AIA has often assumed a position of authority on developments in the nation's capital. At the 1877 convention, trustees opposed the completion of the Washington Monument. Construction had ceased in 1854 when donations ran out, leaving the truncated obelisk at 152 feet. The resumption of the campaign after the Civil War was mired in controversy over the design. President Thomas U. Walter questioned whether it was "dignified for the institute to thrust itself forward without being invited." Following debate, a motion was made to offer the services of the institute to the Washington Monument Association. The motion was defeated, and the whole matter postponed indefinitely.
In the 1960s, conventioneers often strayed from mundane business matters to confront difficult social issues such as civil rights, equality for women, and the Vietnam War. At the 1968 convention, Whitney M. Young Jr., executive director of the National Urban League, spoke of the disinherited poor and their demand for more equal opportunities. He condemned the AIA for its silence on the issue in a speech that was pivotal in focusing the profession on minority issues, and closed his remarks by saying, "By your invitation to me and by your attentiveness to an overly long set of remarks, I am convinced that you are well on your way to becoming as indignant as those who are hurt."
Technology on the Horizon
The 1964 Report of the Board warned AIA members of the rising need for more comprehensive and specialized information and data in the building industry. To prod the profession into taking a leadership role, the AIA's Office of Education arranged a data processing/computer demonstration for representatives of industry, government, and architecture. Two years later, no less an authority than Isidor Rabi, winner of the 1944 Nobel Prize for Physics, addressed the convention: "I do not think of the computer as anti-architect. I think it is quite the other way. I think the computer when it really blossoms forth into general use will free the architect of a great deal of drudgery. That's not so important. He ... can't be creative every minute. But he will be able to ... foresee the consequences of any design and changes he may make, see them immediately and be able to do his job more effectively."
Staying on the President's Radar
From early on, the AIA was keenly interested in urban renewal and the creation of low-cost housing. At the 1936 convention, the institute received high praise and encouragement for its efforts when a telegram arrived from President Franklin D. Roosevelt. It read, in part: "Long years of neglect of much of our older housing, followed by a severe depression during which the home building industry remained virtually at a standstill, has left us with an industrial and social problem of the first magnitude—the problem, namely, of providing enough housing both to replace an enormous accumulated obsolescence and to take care of a constantly growing population. ... If we are to avoid now both the excesses and shortcomings of previous building activities our architects can perform no greater service, it seems to me, than by directing their efforts toward a small house of moderate cost for occupancy by the wage earners and salaried workers in our urban communities."