Robert Ivy Portrait
Alan Karchmer Robert Ivy Portrait

At the end of 2021, Robert Ivy, FAIA, will say goodbye to the American Institute of Architects.

After a more than a decade of leadership, Ivy will retire as AIA’s executive vice president and chief executive officer. The organization he’s leaving behind is markedly different than the one he was called on to lead in February 2011: While the Great Recession and a global pandemic altered the world’s economic and cultural landscape, the members of an increasingly diverse profession came of age and found their voices on social issues big and small.

The organization itself has changed: It is slimmer at the board level, as well as nimbler and more responsive to the critiques and concerns leveled by dues-paying architects. Some of these changes were timely and circumstantial, with AIA adapting to firm and member needs, but many of them were the work of Robert Ivy.

Below, Ivy–in his own words–describes his time at the helm of AIA and his thoughts on the institute he reshaped as he prepares for the next phase of his life.

Ivy’s plan was always to redesign AIA for the 21st century. The association was strong in 2011; it had been around since 1857 for a reason. But amid calls for a more equitable profession, for architecture and architects to embrace technology, and for AIA to support its members more effectively, he knew the organization had to adapt.

Now, in 2021, despite a very uncertain world, Ivy can confidently say that he’s reinvigorated a place of connection and community for the next generation.

When I returned to Mississippi after architectural school, the conversations we had about architecture revolved around our local [AIA] chapter. The chapter was the source of so much of our interest in, and our discussions about, architecture. And you were able to try things out. If you wanted to work on a project for the public good, you did that through the chapter. We renovated an old community building and literally got out there with jackhammers. I had never held a jackhammer until our chapter redid that fire station as a new community center for a neighborhood in Jackson, Miss.

It also put me in touch with other architects who have enriched my own knowledge and life. Among those were some who’ve gone on to be widely recognized. [AIA Gold Medal winner] Sam Mockbee, AIA, was an active member. I got to know him, in part, because of the chapter.

You also received something I recognized from day one: the benefit of the wisdom of the architects who had been practicing for a long time. I can remember the meetings I had with them, in their offices, where we got the lowdown on what it was like to make it through a hard time, or the professional optimism that it often takes to be an architect. I would call it both a living and learning experience.

That formed the background tapestry of my practice life for the early part of my career. And it shaped my desire to expand opportunities, at AIA and across the profession, so that people interested in architecture could find their own togetherness and that experience of community. Among those of us who graduated from architecture school post-1960s, there was an open attitude about who we were and what our community should really consist of in an ideal way. And many of us have worked toward that goal and are gratified to see that we’re confronting—we hope—the last vestiges of exclusion as we push for a more inclusive and fully rounded, representative design community.

Though AIA is a nonpartisan organization, taking a stand on issues like climate change and racial justice goes beyond politics. Over the last half-decade, the association and its members have firmly shared their values with the design community and the world, standing for equity and human rights, for a sustainable future, and for architecture that emphasizes the resiliency of our built environment.

Ivy was at the forefront of that decision, understanding that silence is complicity and that architects are, by nature of their work, leaders in their communities. If there was ever a time in history to speak out and get involved, it’s now.

In 2016, we issued an advocacy letter that was widely misunderstood. It was a nonpartisan lobbying letter. But we very quickly recognized the need to make our values explicit. The board then issued a statement of values, intending for them to be clear to anyone who looked at AIA and asked, “What do we stand for?” Those values are still intact today.

At the same time, we began to address specific issues that were important to us as architects, as an association, for our time. The first one was immigration. We recognized that architects all over the country employ people from other parts of the globe, and they help make their offices prosperous and enrich the architecture that we produce. We went on to address many others, including climate and school safety; a variety of issues that really demanded clarifying in a public way.

All of that work, I am extremely proud of. But then we took it a step further. We collected those ideas and distilled them into a five-year strategic plan that highlights justice, that highlights equity, that highlights climate action. And a strategic plan leads to actions, it leads to budgets, and it leads to programs. The good words that we all committed to have now been reflected in actual work for AIA, today and in the future. That is where the rubber meets the road. It’s not just “what I think” but “what I do.”

In 2012, we were told by our advisers that people did not believe the organization to be bold and capable of taking strong positions. I can say today, as I am leaving, that we have taken strong positions. We are in a different place, in terms of our policy and our commitment, than we were before, and I am very proud of that.

From a new, more functional web presence and the resizing of the board of directors to a massive, ongoing public awareness campaign, AIA has transformed in very visible ways over the last decade. That’s because Ivy knew that talk is one thing and action is another; if he took charge but then only made tweaks around the edges, his members would notice. Architects are detailed-oriented, after all.

The results were major changes that potentially unnerved membership at first but led to a stronger, savvier, more responsive organization. A major remodel of AIA’s headquarters is currently in the works, a final, physical testament to the work Ivy’s done.

Association work at the executive level is a balance between internal actions that the member will never, or rarely, see and then your more public positions. In pursuing the changes that began in 2012, many of them had to do with housekeeping and updating our systems to work more effectively. When it came to the association’s digital transformation, I traveled around the country and talked to architects and chapters in town hall meetings. The one message I got over and over: We needed to up our game digitally. Not just with our website but with other products and services.

It took several changes to bring that about, but the decision made by the board was to completely transform our digital platform. And we have been engaged in that process ever since. Those sorts of changes to your internal infrastructure are not immediately visible to the member, but they become explicit. The website begins to look and act differently; your ability to renew your membership, receive newsletters, and sign up for events becomes more transparent and easier. They only make a difference to you, the member, when you need to execute something and realize it’s a little smoother and better than it was before. That’s a large part of what we do.

Then there are programs that make AIA notably more visible: the Blueprint for Better awareness campaign, AIA’s Film Challenge. And our advocacy efforts: These days, members of our large firms regularly fly into Washington to lobby members of Congress, and we have efforts underway not just at the federal but at the state and local level. We’ve had some real wins on favorable tax legislation, on getting language around climate change into executive orders and pending legislation. Sometimes our initiatives start behind-the-scenes and end up making a real, notable difference.

As December draws closer, reality is setting in for Ivy: His time as the leader of AIA is almost over. But what a ride it’s been; he’s been able to successfully lead the organization through a remarkable period of upheaval and can confidently say that it’s come out stronger on the other side.

Ivy hopes to possibly write another book, to serve on several boards, and even to teach. And of course, he’ll keep tabs on AIA, confident that it will continue to evolve with the times and serve its architects’ needs.

What you become aware of very quickly when you start a job like this is that you’re not a corporate CEO who can go in and set a whole new direction. “We’re going to take that hill.” It doesn’t work like that. This is really a stewardship of a body of values and of people who want to make positive change in the world.

It’s been my view, throughout the last number of years, that the association is really a large network of people with shared interests. It’s less an institution or a bureaucracy than a connected network of people who want to be and choose to be connected to each other. Part of the trick is discerning where they as a group are, listening to them, and trying to synthesize their hopes, dreams, and ideals into words and direction for the future.

That’s the job of AIA’s CEO: not to make pronouncements but rather to discern people’s collective vision. For themselves, for their work, for their ability to change and make change in the world. And to succeed. Someone who can get all those elements to coalesce: That’s how I’d define a successful leader of this association.