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What is our relationship with power?

Hugh Pearman

Presidential politics have whipped up a furore for America’s AIA

Architects want to be a strong voice in the corridors of power. Meeting ministers and their political shadows, responding publicly to government policy statements, running campaigns for a better quality of the built ­environment – such activities are part and parcel of the RIBA’s activities in the UK. But we have not yet found ourselves in the position of our American-based colleagues, many of whom are asking: should they have anything to do with president-elect Donald Trump?

The wounds caused by the election campaign and result led to an immediate ­controversy. The American Institute of Architects’ chief executive Robert Ivy rushed out a statement with the words: ‘The AIA and its 89,000 members are committed to working with president-elect Trump to address the issues our country faces, particularly strengthening the nation’s infrastructure…this has been a hard-fought, contentious election process. It is now time for all of us to work together to advance policies that help our country move forward.’

This was too soon and left too much unsaid, according to plenty of those members –spearheaded by the independent Architect’s Newspaper, which decried what it saw as ‘the inappropriate nature and myopic tone’ of Ivy’s statement. The magazine pointed to Trump’s ‘racist, misogynist and hateful campaign’. Where did this leave diversity in the profession? What of Trump’s denial of man-made climate change? And besides – wasn’t Trump’s proposed anti-immigrant wall along the Mexican border the wrong kind of infrastructure? Unlike the ‘schools, hospitals and other public infrastructure’ that Ivy hopefully mentioned? Some members resigned, others threatened to.

Ivy, himself a veteran of architectural publishing, duly responded. Acknowledging the concern expressed along with ‘the right of each member to his or her political beliefs,’ he said: ‘The spirit and intention behind our statement is consistent with and in support of President Obama’s eloquent call for us all to unite for the best interest of America’s future.’

The board pointed to Trump’s ‘racist, misogynist and hateful campaign’. Where did this leave diversity in the profession?

This wasn’t enough for enraged members, and Ivy was forced into a public apology, on video, standing next to a glowering AIA ­national president Russ Davidson. ‘The statement I issued was tone-deaf,’ said Ivy, who made it clear he too was hurt by Trump’s election. ‘The message that went out was a mistake and should not have happened,’ said Davidson. Both vowed to listen harder to members.

But what about the American architects who voted for Trump or at any rate accept his legitimacy? Soon they made their views known too, defending Ivy’s original statement. So it rumbles on, and more will have happened by the time you read this. But we’re familiar with hurtful political upsets in the UK, are we not? We understand the pain and divisiveness. Yes, professional institutes must work with those in power – but not at any cost. Not without voicing strong criticism and protest when it is due.