Carl Elefante, FAIA, 2018 AIA President
Photography: Gabriella Marks Carl Elefante, FAIA, 2018 AIA President

As thousands of AIA members gather in New York City for the 2018 AIA Conference on Architecture, our profession is compelled to recall the speech delivered 50 years ago at the AIA Convention in Portland, Ore., by Whitney M. Young Jr., one of the nation’s most prominent civil rights activists. Young gave a powerful speech, chastising architects for “complete irrelevance” to the civil rights struggle. My words here do not come close to expressing the significance of the moment.

Less than three months before Young spoke before the AIA, Martin Luther King Jr. had been gunned down in Memphis. Uncontrollable anger was ignited. Neighborhoods burned to the ground in dozens of cities across the nation. The civil rights movement had lost its most trusted and beloved leader, the voice of hope, whose “dream” defined a vision for bringing races together in America.

Those emotional wounds from King’s death were still very fresh when—less than three weeks before the Portland Convention—Robert F. Kennedy was shot dead while campaigning for president. His candidacy symbolized hope for ending the Vietnam War and piecing back together the shattered civil rights movement.

That was the context of Young’s speech to the American Institute of Architects.

There are powerful personal connections for me in this history. In the spring of 1968, I was completing my freshman year of architecture school at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. But to explain the experience of the 1968 Convention, I need to back up four and a half years.

In November 1963, I was still getting accustomed to high school. I will never forget that Friday afternoon when, over the intercom, the principal announced, in a cracking voice, that President John F. Kennedy had been murdered. I was too young to have any real perspective on Kennedy’s skill as a political leader, but to me he personified the promise of a brighter tomorrow. He dared our generation to aspire to greatness, to shoot for the moon.

Over the intervening years, my personal awakening to the complexities of life paralleled the nation’s. Promises of the Great Society were raised in a flurry of legislation while America’s cities continued to crumble. The Greatest Generation’s expectations of just and winnable warfare grew increasingly out of touch as young—mostly black—men were sent to die without clear purpose.

So it was without the hopeful voices of Robert, Martin, and John, that Whitney Young came to the AIA in 1968 and challenged our profession to recognize that we weren’t doing enough, that our commitment to correcting social ills was sorely lacking, and that our impact could not be—and should not be—measured in bricks and mortar alone.

With still-vivid memories of 1968, Young’s words then ring just as true for me today. African-American participation in the profession has not measurably increased. In too many firms, women struggle for equal opportunity and pay, and against sexual harassment and assault. Millions of our children are marching in the streets, demanding protection from assault weapons that school design alone cannot provide. Our immigrant nation’s desperate need to reinvest in infrastructure is sidetracked by arguments over a border wall to prevent immigration.

Does the responsibility of architects end with the lines we draw? Are we content serving our clients without also serving society more broadly? Can we sufficiently protect public health, safety, and welfare if we’re focused only on adhering to building regulations?

In 2018, architecture is experiencing a relevance revolution. Field after field is recognizing the effects of the built environment on human outcomes. By shaping the built environment, architects shape lives. Our responsibility to contribute solutions to the compelling social, economic, and environmental challenges of our era aligns powerfully with the evolving understanding of our impact. Together they demand that our profession directly addresses human need and embraces its countless opportunities as social entrepreneurs.

Where will we draw the line?