For the first 70 years the United States, it was possible for anyone who wanted to call themselves an architect to do so. Although there were many great buildings designed by great architects during this period, such as the White House, the Capitol building and the University of Virginia, the latter having been personally designed by the polymathic Thomas Jefferson himself, there was, nonetheless, serious concern over the rigor of standards and ethics in such an unregulated industry.
For this reason, in 1857, some of the most prominent architects in New York convened to form the American Institute of Architects. Their mission was multi-fold. First, they sought to create a body that would impose and maintain professional standards, thus ensuring that only the qualified and talented would be able to call themselves architects. Second, the organization sought to create goodwill for the industry as a whole and the projects it created. Third, the organization was designed to be able to lobby on behalf of the interests of those involved in the design and construction of the nation’s built environment, making sure that other special interests, such as the railroads and steel industry, were not able to unfairly benefit at the expense of those who needed quality buildings and affordable living and working spaces.
The plan turned out to be perspicacious. By the mid-1880s, the invention of the elevator, 30 years before, had spurred the rise of the skyscraper as the dominant form of urban construction. The high standards and strong professionalism encouraged by the American Institute of Architects helped the nascent industry to flourish. It also instilled great confidence in a public that, just a few decades before, had largely lived a rural existence, never setting foot in any building higher than three stories. This confidence was crucial in winning the support of the public for new experiences, such as taking a high-speed elevator to a 40th story office.
Throughout the 20th century, the American Institute of Architects only gained in prestige. Its awards and fellowships became coveted status symbols and high honors in a trade that was increasingly viewed as being just as respectable as law and medicine. The list of famous architects who have held leadership positions, fellowships and received awards is a true who’s-who list of the greatest talents in American architecture.
Today, led by renowned architect Robert Ivy, the organization is looking towards the future and designing the future of the country.