courtesy Office of the Attorney General of New York

The fake architect is going to jail. In a victory for licensure everywhere, Paul Newman (who, at least, did not also pretend to be the actor) was convicted and sentenced to two to seven years in prison for practicing without a license for seven years. (How’s that for an amazing coincidence?) Over the course of his “practice,” Newman used a fake stamp and license number to sign off on dozens of buildings in and around Troy, N.Y., which is in the metropolitan area of the state capital of Albany. As others have pointed out, Newman only made $200,000, or less than $30,000 a year, doing that. The citizens of New York can sleep safe at night, however, in the apartment buildings that his Cohesion Studios designed, though: code officials have signed off on all of his buildings and subsequently found no violations.

This whole case raises the question of whether it mattered that Newman was not licensed. From a practical standpoint, it does not appear to have. He was able to get his buildings approved by all officials and they are all still standing. What really matters is this: His ability to practice for so long with impunity threatens the whole system by which we judge whether somebody can call themselves an architect.

Of course, there is the ethical issue of somebody claiming to be what he is not. But what disturbs me is the fact that, from what I can tell from the few photographs online and from what I have read in the press, the work Newman did was neither better nor worse than what some architects who are licensed produce on a daily basis. (Newman’s LinkedIn profile is still up, by the way.) Of course, that should come as no surprise. A license to practice is not a guarantee that you will be a good architect. What it does guarantee is that you have taken a series of tests that prove that you understand codes, basic organizational and site design principles, and know how to manage the business of being a professional architect.

That leaves the business of promoting and vouchsafing good architecture, as opposed to competent building design, to educators and to associations such as the AIA, NCARB, and the NAAB. The AIA performs its main task (beyond ensuring good insurance rates) through advocacy and public education (including this publication, which is its official journal), as well as through continuing education and other means it has at its disposal.

It does not appear that Newman was an AIA member, so we do not know if he could have benefited from these efforts, but I am sad to say that the lack of difference between his work and that of his legit colleagues makes me think the professional organizations and the schools have not been as effective as they could be. This frustration I feel becomes stronger when I see what is under construction around me.

As always, it is not the players, but the system that is at fault. My dream would be to have a situation—and I realize this is hopelessly romantic—that is based not on prerequisites or protective measures, but on positive standards. Architects with the honor to carry that title should not only be able to do no harm, they should also do good. They should be wise stewards both of our spaces and places and of our natural resources. They should make our cities, suburbs, and rural landscapes better in every way. They should contribute their talents, knowledge, and money to a continual effort that pushes us towards such a more sustainable, socially just, open, and beautiful built environment. Sure, an integral part of that contribution would be to make sure that fire stairs are in the proper location and that water can drain properly off roofs and parking areas, but those basic things should be the preliminary and not the final criteria for licensure.

Paul Newman will have some time in jail to read up about architecture. Maybe he can even study for his exam and, no doubt, pass it. He could even emerge as a good contributor to the discipline and the profession. But what worries me more than the presence of a few shady and crafty operators such as Newman is bad architects who, under the cloak of licensure (and without the AIA or anybody else able to do anything about it), commit crimes against our landscapes and lives on a daily basis. Those are the ones that should really go to jail.