In July, the most powerful people in American architecture gathered in Chicago to deliberate the future of the discipline. The occasion was a routine meeting of the National Architectural Accrediting Board (NAAB), which turned out to be anything but routine after the organizers decided to radicalize the agenda and invite the full governing boards of architecture’s five so-called collateral organizations. (I was on hand as an observer.) The participants, through their board seats, possess wide rule-making authority over architectural education and practice in the United States. It was made clear from the get-go that the conversation was designed to question current policy, not just of accreditation, but of other fundamentals such as licensure and equity, and ultimately of the collateral system itself.

The collaterals started taking shape in the 19th century, through a combination of top-down legislation and grassroots organizing. The membership groups came first: AIA in 1857, and the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture in 1912. The corresponding regulatory bodies, the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards, which oversee professional training and licensure, and NAAB, which sets educational standards and accredits schools, date to 1919 and 1940, respectively. The American Institute of Architecture Students got started in 1956.

Their charters involve a tangle of reciprocities: Group X gets a seat on Group Y’s board, Group Z shares revenue with Group X, and the like. So you’d expect the collaterals’ top dogs to hold regular planning sessions, and the presidents and executive directors ostensibly do meet twice a year. But according to several attendees in Chicago, the five full boards hadn’t convened once in living memory.

The invitation list at the NAAB ARForum19 included the boards of all five U.S. collateral architecture organizations.
The invitation list at the NAAB ARForum19 included the boards of all five U.S. collateral architecture organizations.

The fact that the meeting occurred at all is significant, and the boards might want to repeat the experiment. These are unusual times, and ad hoc governance that perpetuates the status quo won’t do.

Architects’ capacity to thrive depends in part on the collaterals’ capacity to address a host of clear and present dangers, including economic uncertainty, environmental degradation, monopolistic capital, political upheaval, social inequity, and tech disruption.

The profession as a whole needs to achieve resilience in the face of such massive change, just as individual practitioners are responding to increasingly extreme weather by making buildings and communities more resilient. To that end, the meeting organizers—including NAAB president Kevin Flynn, FAIA, president-elect Barbara A. Sestak, FAIA, and interim director Helene Combs Dreiling, FAIA—made no room for sacred cows, even inviting debate on whether the collaterals as they stand are up to the current challenges. There’s always a danger that if an organization outlives the need that brought it into existence, it will blindly struggle to perpetuate said existence at all costs. A self-aware collateral, open to criticism, is a healthy collateral.

Architecture’s survival requires strong, agile, fearless leadership, willing to ask tough questions of itself and others, and to make tough, even unpopular decisions. It took a lot of guts to put on the Chicago meeting, and to unreservedly participate. Let’s hope good things come as a result.

This article appeared in the Sept. 2019 print issue of ARCHITECT, under the title "A Meeting to Remember."