Architecture Policy: Talk Versus Action

Election season always means we’ll hear renewed calls from AIA leadership for politicians to engage with policies supported by the architecture community. This has me thinking about ArchiPAC again. I’m not happy about ArchiPAC, the AIA’s political action committee. Anyone who reads this blog or follows me on Twitter knows that too. I want to defund ArchiPAC because it is an organization that has lost its way and is disconnected from the AIA’s Policy Platform.

A question that comes up in discussions about how to make ArchiPAC better (for those that want to keep it around) is what exactly are the rules that would guide ArchiPAC contributions. Well, a good place to start is by simply making sure that politicians who receive funds have policy positions and, more importantly, votes that support the initiatives of the AIA Policy Platform. With this in mind, let’s take a look at how ArchiPAC has failed to align its giving with the Policy Platform. In this article, I’ll be zooming in on the “Climate Action” portion of the Platform.

One part of the “Climate Action” Platform is “Rejoin the Paris Climate Accord”, which President Trump walked away from a few years back. It’s important to note that the President’s decision was greatly influenced by lawmakers in his party, including the 22 senators with significant connections to big oil who wrote him a letter urging him to dump the Accord. In the two election cycles since the letter was written, ArchiPAC gave money to several of these anti-environment senators:

⛽️ Oil-Loving Senator💰 ArchiPAC Contribution
Blunt, 2020$1,000
McConnell, 2020$2,500
Scott, 2020$5,000
Blunt, 2018$2,500
Hatch, 2018$2,500
Source: OpenSecrets 2020, OpenSecrets 2018

For reference, the contributions above represent 40% of all the money ArchiPAC gave to senators during those election cycles.

This group of senators also lobbied the Trump administration to rescind the Clean Power Plan in the same letter, which goes directly against each of the carbon-based pollution mitigation/elimination strategies within AIA’s “Climate Action” Platform. So by giving money to these senators, ArchiPAC is getting a 2-for-1 deal in its pro-oil-industry giving.

This is just one example of connecting politicians’ actions to ArchiPAC’s giving and looking at how that giving contradicts the AIA Policy Platform. There are plenty more connections to be made. For example, connecting opposition to Superfund site cleanup dollars to lawmakers — something that goes against the Platform’s initiative to “actively address the disproportionate impact of climate change and environmental degradation on communities of color.” All of this is still just focused on the “Climate Action” portion of the Platform too — and we haven’t even looked at the “Future Economy” or “Healthy Communities” Platforms.

There’s no question that it’s a ton of work to do this connecting across a Platform and across congress, but if we think it’s important enough to have a PAC, then we must put in the work to make sure giving is aligned with our values. And if we think it’s too much work, then defund the PAC and move on to something that’s actually productive; something where our words and actions are actually aligned to do good for the health, safety, and welfare of our planet, its occupants, and their communities.

The Architects of Incarceration

This is another in an emerging series of articles here at ALL CAPS reflecting on how we make architecture a more accessible, authentic, and equitable profession. In this article, we’ll explore the complicated relationship between architects and America’s prison-building machine.

Be sure to check out previous articles in this series:

There’s a renewed focus in the US architecture community on formally rejecting any work involving jails or prisons and calling out firms who are still engaging with clients in the business of locking people up behind bars. This is great to see, and even reassuring to know that so many architects and firms refuse to get involved in the prison economy. That last word, economy, is key to why we continue to be frustrated that the AIA won’t formally denounce this kind of work. There’s money in locking up people and architects who design jails and prisons are profiting off of a sector of the economy that costs us almost $200,000,000,000 per year (I wrote out that number instead of saying $200B for impact — that’s a shit ton of money). I wanted to know more about the money that goes into incarceration and how much architects are raking in from making America number one in the world in jailing people.

Jails & Prisons are Big Fee Projects for Architects

First, it’s important to note that the rise of privately-owned and operated for-profit prison companies has caused them to follow the same path of any other type of company who rolls out locations across the country: they established in-house design departments. So in some cases, they own their own firms to handle their dirty work. For municipal correctional facility work, the traditional scenario of hiring an architecture firm still applies.

In 2017, the Prison Policy Initiative (PPI) released an exhaustive report on the money being spent in the prison industry. They showed that $3.3B was spent on prison construction (probably more as there’s some overlap with the $3.9B in their Private Corrections figure). As we’re not slowing down our rates of incarceration, it’s safe to assume that $3.3B is even larger today. To give a sense of relative size, the 2017 spend on prison construction was closest in total to the $3.6B spent on religious institutions/places of worship construction back in that same year according to the US Census Bureau.

It’s hard for firms chasing growth to walk away from a multi-billion dollar segment of the built world, and that makes it easy to brush aside any lingering social justice and equity concerns brought about by this line of work. It’s especially troubling that having firms do the right thing and abandon this work could empower the for-profit prison companies to grow their in-house design firms and become the go-to designers.

What’s AIA National’s Role in Enabling Prison Architecture?

AIA National is a slow-moving machine, and I do hope that they will come to their senses soon and formally denounce prison work (at a minimum). The AIA Board of Directors recently issued a statement where they said “we will review our own programs” and “ask our community to join us and hold us accountable.” So, we’ll see…

The political arm of AIA’s work representing the interests of the architecture community is ArchiPAC, their political action committee working with members of Congress. I’m pragmatic about PACs and I realize that sometimes you have to hold your nose and work with a lawmaker that otherwise makes your skin crawl in order to accomplish something good, or maybe even favorable to your industry. But what’s missing from ArchiPAC is some clear, concise guidance on what rules out a campaign contribution, no matter what we lose out on because of our lack of support. ArchiPAC needs some scruples. ArchiPAC says part of their mission is to support candidates who, “promote positive solutions for the built environment” which would seem to imply that anyone receiving a campaign contribution shouldn’t also be accepting contributions from the prison industry, right? Wrong.

For the current 2020 cycle alone, ArchiPAC has made contributions to the some of the largest beneficiaries of the prison industry’s dirty money:

Representatives Who Received 2020 Campaign Contributions from ArchiPAC & The For-Profit Prison Industry

Name (party-state)
Bacon (R-NE)
Carter (R-TX)
Cuellar (D-TX) 💰
Fitzpatrick (R-PA)
Granger (R-TX)
Huizenga (R-MI)
Katko (R-NY)
McAdams (D-UT) 💰 (it appears the ArchiPAC contribution was returned)
Nunes (R-CA)
Reed (R-NY)
Upton (R-MI)
💰= Top 20 Recipient of Prison Money


Senators Who Received 2020 Campaign Contributions from ArchiPAC & The For-Profit Prison Industry

Name (party-state)
Shaheen (D-NH)
Hyde-Smith (R-MS)
McConnell (R-KY) 💰
💰= Top 20 Recipient of Prison Money


That’s definitely not promoting positive solutions for the built environment. Rather, it’s enabling some people to continue to profit off of locking up other people at a higher per capita rate than anywhere else on earth.

How Do We Get All of Architecture Out of Prison Design?

We all need to agree to not do something. Good luck on that, right? Well, if we look at the US prison system for what it is, and do so very visibly, then it becomes socially unacceptable. If we can do that, then we might be able get our industry to stop profiting from imprisoning our people. It all starts with clear and ethical leadership from folks like the AIA setting the tone and making it clear that these potential clients are ones we all turn down.

Accessible and Authentic Architecture is Equitable Architecure

I’ve been delayed in publishing new articles as this past week has kept ALL CAPS HQ in Minneapolis pretty sleepless and occupied trying to keep calm and help neighbors. While our neighborhoods are heavily damaged, even completely gone along some blocks, I’ve been uplifted by how much everyone’s thoughts refuse to turn away from the unjust death of George Floyd that preceded all the destruction.

When I restarted the ALL CAPS blog a few months back, one of the things I wanted to write about was my experience working the “Close to the Edge: The Birth of Hip-Hop Architecture” exhibit organized by AIA Minnesota last year at Springboard for the Arts near downtown St. Paul. This time last year, the exhibit was in full swing, and I’ve been struggling to figure out just how I wanted to write about my experiences.

In the midst of trying to get through some pretty rough nights this week, I saw a tweet from Hip-Hop Architecture practitioner Michael Ford that instantly brought into focus what I needed to write about from my experience with the exhibit…

Michael’s tweet emphasizes an important disconnect and reluctance within the architecture community that even publicly-traded corporations and their CEOs now embrace. My impression is that while architects who focus on social responsibility get some attention here and there, they’re mostly on the periphery of our profession. I don’t need to go into where our focus lies in this article, you can open any architecture magazine and see that.

Our profession’s focus is reflected in how everyone outside of the profession views us. The characterizations people most commonly make about architects tell us everything about how we’re perceived, and we all know these common associations: aloof, flaky, out of touch, artsy and impractical, unaffordable, hard to understand. If you step out of your architect’s shoes (I wanted to make a joke about the kind of shoes here — easy target — but I stopped myself 😆) and honestly assess how our profession comes off to everyone else, especially those in minority and socially-marginalized communities, we’re more often than not distant and disconnected, both in the makeup of our workforce and in a lot of the work we churn out. All of that can be interpreted as being inauthentic, which brings me back around to Hip-Hop Architecture…

“I lost touch with reality,
Now my personality
Is an unwanted commodity”

De La Soul

The hosts of the exhibit, Springboard for the Arts, had acquired their new headquarters, a former Ford dealership, a short time before the “Close to the Edge…” started. They moved in without really adapting the building (in fact, selective demolition for renovations was starting as soon as the exhibit ended). The exhibit took place in old garage at the back of the building, and it was the perfect backdrop.

Key to framing how I think we architects can get back to reality with people outside of our profession were my experiences with people at “Close to the Edge…” which were split into conversations with fellow architecture professionals and conversations with people visiting the exhibit.

I love talking shop with other architects, and I know that our surroundings in this exhibit were a direct inspiration for getting into important conversations about the inequalities of our profession. Over the exhibit’s run, these conversations covered a lot of important topics. But the single conversation that stood out most to me was about how the biased preferences for a certain kind of project manager that a big, repeat client of a firm had negatively influenced the kinds of people that firm hired or promoted when looked at through the lens of diversity. In its pursuit of stable cash flow and growth, an architecture firm is capable of embracing the discriminitory biases of their biggest clients. Architecture firms where this happens are actively contributing to inequality in our society. That’s incredibly fucked up.

The conversations with the non-architect visitors to the exhibit were the highlight of my time working the show. Many of the visitors were younger hip-hop fanatics who heard about what was happening at the old dealership, or even people from the neighborhood who happened upon the exhibit. There’s something disarming about being inside of the service bay of a former Ford dealership and surrounded by hip-hop art, music, and examples of its architecture — it’s not at all aloof, flaky, out of touch, artsy and impractical, unaffordable (the exhibit was free), or hard to understand. For those visitors where I had a chance to ask about their interactions with architects and architecture as a topic, they all said it was a first time experience for them. Despite that lack of experience, these visitors were able to quickly grasp the ideology behind Hip-Hop Architecture and apply it to what they were seeing in the exhibit pieces. This approachability and accessibility to a design movement is a stark contrast to the morass of Euro-centric architectural history that architects are taught in architecture school — not to divide us by differing design movements either — if anything, the historians remind me of battle rappers one-upping each other with more and more obscure knowledge as they argue over Boullée or some shit like that on Twitter, of course history is important. But the approachability through authenticity of Hip-Hop Architecture is incredibly powerful at a time when architecture desperately needs to attract diverse talent to a profession that’s almost all white and is frankly out of touch socially.

It’s Time to Stop Being Studio Gangsters

In hip-hop, studio gangsters are rappers whose lyrics cover topics that they haven’t actually had to live through and deal with in their own lives, they’re inauthentic wannabes who are mocked by the culture. I like how this terminology can apply in a similar way to architects and architecture firms. I wrote those two sentences just a few hours before a prime example of what I’m talking about showed up on Twitter:

That tweet is an obvious example (and AECOM’s marketing person, who probably makes more than most architects ever will, is a hypocritical dumbass for even attempting to go there with this tweet). Architects and architecture firms are studio gangsters in subtler ways too. The example of the firm that embraces a client’s discrimination in pursuit of profit is another way. And when our industry brings up the need for diversity every damn year at every damn conference, but nothing changes, that’s all of us being studio gangsters.

“The architect, selecting the blueprints
To rid the game of nuisance” ~ Guru

While hip-hop culture was created by Blacks and Latinos in the Bronx in the 1970’s, it’s truly a global culture today. The designs and art in “Close to the Edge” represented the work architecture professionals and designers from all over the world, the work of all different races and ethnicities, the work of men and women. This makes the Hip-Hop Architecture movement an ideal starting point for architects to make real change to who we are, to what we create, and to the kinds of clients we choose to work for.

I’ve always advocated for architects to provide services and insights in non-traditional architecture-adjacent ways to show our value. I’ve also advocated for brining a business mindset to our practice as another way to demonstrate our value. I’m still on board with all of that, but the convergence of this past week’s events with my lingering memories of the exhibit brought home that being socially responsible, accessible, and authentic in practice is what needs to go at the top of the list of how we show our value to others.

If we really want to change the diversity of our profession, if we really want to be understood and appreciated by all people outside of our profession, then we need to be accessible and authentic. There’s an accessible and authentic movement out there just waiting for us to learn about, adopt, and practice through actions, not just words. We’ve got work to do.

Michael Ford wrote an outstanding piece for Azure that’s a must-read for all architecture professionals. Michael’s Hip-Hop Architecture Camp is a perfect example of accessibility and authenticity in action. Please support his important efforts with a donation.