Kirth Bobb

A few years after graduating college, American Institute of Architects 2023 President Emily Grandstaff-Rice, FAIA, started working at CambridgeSeven in Boston, where she frequently walked by an image that captured the company’s AIA Architecture Firm Award win from 1993.

“On the wall, they had a picture of all the representatives who were there at the formal ceremony, and it was all men except for one woman,” says Grandstaff-Rice.

Studies show that when looking at photographs, the human eye goes to the intersection of points rather than the center. This is why many creatives, including architects, adopt the Rule of Thirds, or the Golden Ratio, when considering the positioning of space and objects in their work. John Thomas Smith first suggested the benefit of balancing symmetry in design in his 1797 etchings notebook, Remarks on Rural Scenery. But it was not the composition of an old picture that captured Grandstaff-Rice’s attention. It was the one woman in whom she could see herself as she was starting a career in a male-dominated industry. “For me, [it was about] seeing that picture almost every single day, knowing there was someone out there,” Grandstaff-Rice recalls. “But I could never figure out who the woman in the picture was.”

Framing a New View

For the last century, no matter how the shot was framed, most images featuring AIA leaders captured little asymmetry; the principal subjects in photos among the AIA archives are white men.

“There have been more AIA presidents named Robert than women presidents,” jokes Grandstaff-Rice, who became AIA’s sixth female president (out of 99 total) in December. She was inaugurated by AIA EVP/CEO Lakisha Ann Woods, CAE, who was hired in 2021. Woods is only the second woman to lead the organization.

When people look back on pictures from the celebration at Grandstaff-Rice’s inauguration, images will show a historic new era for AIA; never before have three women simultaneously held the top three leadership spots. When 2024 President-elect Kimberly Dowdell, AIA, is inaugurated at the end of this year, she will become the first Black woman to lead AIA as president (and the first millennial).

Though each woman brings distinctive leadership skills, unique points of view, and different areas of expertise, all align in the passion they hold for AIA and its members. Each is eager to frame a new view within AIA and the communities it serves where people of every age, race, and ability fit in the picture.

“This year is an important opportunity to let the architecture profession and society know that AIA is leading the way on the message of equity,” says Woods. “The more we can show that, the more we are going to impact the workforce. We are walking the talk and backing up our strategic plan with action and intentionality.”

“We have to focus on diversifying the workforce and increasing the number of women and minorities,” she continues. “We must be able to ensure the future of the profession by developing our workforce.”

While Woods leads AIA’s all-encompassing efforts to reduce climate change and increase racial and ethnic equity in the profession and beyond, Grandstaff-Rice, who led the launch of AIA’s Guides for Equitable Practice, will maintain a focus on creating parity in the profession. Likewise, she plans to speak often about AIA’s Framework for Design Excellence to guide conversations about the influences architects make in the world beyond style and aesthetics.

“The idea that you can only practice architecture in one way is holding us back from our greater potential,” says Grandstaff-Rice. “We are big thinkers; we solve really complex problems that others sometimes don’t even want to touch. Sometimes it is change management. Sometimes it’s delivery of systems, technologies, etc. The training you get as an architect is extraordinary problem solving, a creative way to see the world, and the world needs more of that.”

Dowdell is also eager to explore the impact of architects “beyond buildings” to help raise the public profile of—and compensation for—architects as they begin their careers.

“We have a real talent attraction and retention issue,” says Dowdell, “and if we don’t address that now, we will be in big trouble for the future as we find fewer architects.”

Picturing Success

Soon after Dowdell was elected, she received a letter from a second-year architecture student.

“She said, ‘Because you won, I feel like my dreams are possible,’” shares Dowdell. The letter moved Dowdell to tears. “Imagining all these young women, women of color, young men—all the people—seeing new possibilities.”

In 2023, Woods, Grandstaff-Rice, and Dowdell will use all of AIA’s platforms to tell the stories of successful leaders across all racial and gender demographics as a constant reminder to the design community that diversity fuels creativity and success.

“We intend to achieve great things together, which will reinforce the notion that women leaders are abundantly capable of excellence,” says Dowdell. “Our hope is that the example we set will inspire a whole new generation of architects to see women at the highest levels of leadership as perfectly normal and not so unique.”

In 2023, a dedicated focus will remain on ensuring inclusive leadership and participation on AIA’s boards and committees. This year, AIA’s Women’s Leadership Summit will become an annual event. “If this is a priority, it
needs to happen every year,” says Woods. AIA is also producing a weekly video series to spotlight exceptional leaders, especially women and people of color, within the industry. The goal is to capture the attention of rising leaders, the way a lone woman in an old firm photo once captivated the current AIA president.

Eventually, Grandstaff-Rice would discover the woman from her old office photo was AIA’s first female president, Susan A. Maxman, FAIA, who served in 1993. “She was there giving the men the [Architecture Firm Award],” Grandstaff-Rice says she realized, when her roles within AIA connected her to Maxman. “I did not know who she was until I ended up meeting her 20 years later. She is a fantastic trailblazer, and now we get to build off her work.”