2018 AIA President Carl Elefante
Gabriella Marks 2018 AIA President Carl Elefante

After 27 years in prison, Nelson Mandela became president of South Africa. His greatest challenge was to successfully transition the country from apartheid to a multicultural society. Mandela understood that South Africa’s survival depended on uniting a deeply divided nation. Recognizing that the inequities and crimes of the past must be confronted as the first step toward forgiving, trusting, and healing, Mandela established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Today the architectural profession is compelled to confront its own history of inequities, and even crimes, if it is to survive and thrive into the future. This year, the #MeToo movement has given voice to thousands, mostly women, who have suffered harassment and abuse in the workplace, including several high-profile cases in the architectural profession.

Our profession must do everything possible to support those who have been targeted and abused, and to hold harassers and abusers fully accountable for their actions. But if we are going to make our profession equitable and just, we cannot stop there.

The stories reported this year reveal a profession that all-too-frequently favors talent over character. Abuse in architecture is not limited to sexual abuse—far from it. Our profession has been shown to knowingly tolerate, even enable, abuses by the powerful and acclaimed, and practices that perpetuate inequality, inequity, and exclusion.

As our association works diligently and urgently to eliminate harassment, abuse, and inequity, I have come to understand that most acts that tolerate and enable them are born of ignorance and an outdated professional culture. But, as the saying goes, “Ignorance is no excuse.” Culture changes as attitudes and actions change.

Is our profession capable of praising the creations of, for example, Stanford White and Louis Kahn without idolizing them as people? This is not an easy proposition. It requires complex and nuanced thought, qualities that are all too often missing in today’s discourse. Granted, our profession requires singleness of purpose, but not at the expense of common decency and respect for the contributions of others.

Our profession cannot transform studio and workplace culture without changing how we teach and work. How many universities have truly changed the design studio experience? I know of few, most at community colleges. How many firms are still built around a single master designer? On this count I’m more optimistic. Larger-than-life personalities are being displaced with branded firms. (I say this without cynicism. Branding is this era’s method for defining common purpose.)