• Alan Karchmer / Robert Ivy Portrait
    Robert Ivy, FAIA - photo courtesy AIA

In May, the American Institute of Architects announced that Robert Ivy, FAIA, will retire at the end of this year, drawing to a close a decade-long tenure as executive vice president and chief executive officer of the architecture profession’s premier national association. Previous to joining the AIA, Ivy was vice president and editorial director of McGraw-Hill Construction and editor in chief of Architectural Record magazine. He’s also a registered architect who earned an M. Arch at Tulane University and ran his own practice, and a published author who wrote the definitive biography of legendary architect Fay Jones, now in its third edition. Recently, Texas Architect Editor Aaron Seward chatted with Ivy about his life and career. The following transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

Aaron Seward: I’d like to start this talk by going back to the beginning and asking, what was it that attracted you to architecture?

Robert Ivy, FAIA: I think the defining moment came when I was an intelligence officer in the U.S. Navy. Very few people know that. When you get out, you decide what you want to be when you grow up, where you want to go to graduate school. It put me in this reflective mood, and I really began to think about architecture seriously for the first time. The town that I’d grown up in, it has beautiful architecture. I had always loved it. When I had traveled, what I had done was visit buildings and admire them, and walk through them, and touch them. I also had some sage advice from a friend of my parents who was an architect. He said, “Look around and see the people that you admire the most. What do they do?” I’m from a small town in the South. I looked at those people that I admired, and actually one or two of them were architects. I put all that together, and I literally made that kind of conscious rational choice. 

AS: So how did you go from that decision to editing Architectural Record? 

RI: I didn’t have a burning desire to be an architect from the day that I was born. I thought I was going to be a writer, and my first degree was in English literature. What happened was that I ended up doing both. I went to architecture school at Tulane, and the first day in my first job at an architecture firm, my first boss said: “I’m editor of our state journal. Would you like to write an article?” And I said, “Yes.” 

So I had this dual career from day one in my job. I wrote for national architecture magazines. I guest-edited a Japanese journal. I did videos. I started a magazine in the Mid-South called Architecture South. AIAs from five states sponsored it. It was not as big as Texas Architect, but it wasn’t bad. It was really to try to explain architecture to clients through imagery and words. And then I moved to New York in 1996.

AS: For the job at Record?

RI: For the change of Record to AIA distribution. I wasn’t the editor immediately. I went up there as a consultant. The AIA sent me because there aren’t that many architects that write. I stayed for eight and a half months and then was named editor.

AS: Amazing. 

RI: It was amazing. I went from Columbus, Mississippi, to New York. Oh, you should have seen the faces in the room when they announced who the editor was. It wasn’t pretty because everybody that was there had put their stake in the ground. They said, “This guy, who is he?” And there I was. 

I had the grounding of a little age on me at that point. And I had worked in New York before, in college. My wife is from Brooklyn, and I had the confidence to know that I really wrote well, and I was a good editor because I’d already edited more than one magazine and I really enjoyed it. And I wasn’t unsure about what we were going to do. I was comfortable with it. So when people would look at me askance, I would sort of chuckle because I knew we could do what we needed to do.

I moved very quickly into that role. I was going all over the world and meeting these unbelievable people. I’ve had experiences, like with Santiago Calatrava — I went to his home, and he played Bach and sketched and his children were running around, and we walked along the lakeside and went to lunch and spent the whole day talking about architecture. I had experience after experience after experience like that, just drinking this stuff, and never regretted a day of it. I loved every minute, it was so great.

AS: So what then led you from Record to directing the AIA?

RI: I went for a long run while on vacation. It was sort of a beautiful, blissful afternoon overseas. I got halfway through the run and all these thoughts just literally percolated through my mind. They must have been there at night or subconsciously. What I understood is that I knew how to make a magazine, and that if I made another issue, it would be redundant. I didn’t need to repeat myself. I loved it, but I’d done it. And I really had. Like what I’ve just told you, that one little mini experience with Calatrava multiplied a hundredfold, not just with stellar people, but experiences. Like being there when the World Trade Center fell down and observing it from seven blocks away. Or literally watching China explode with energy, being on the ground and being with Chinese architects and builders and seeing their country come to life. 

It just so happened that this other position had come along right about at that time. I am an architect, and I thought, okay, here is a large segment of my life that was more focused on writing and thinking about architecture. I could take the knowledge that I had and actually apply it to the profession, because the profession was ready for, I thought at that point, a kick in the pants, a fresh outlook, a new beginning in a new century. And boy, have we ever seen it. 

I’ve actually gotten to take part in the change through the association — and associations are unusual creatures. They are not like corporations, where you can go into a conference room with a group of committed people and emerge and an answer has been determined and you go out and do it. It doesn’t work that way in an association. Here at the AIA, there are 95,000 people who think they are smarter than you are. And every one of them is opinionated and they all weigh in and they all say, “Well, that’s pretty good. But if you just did this….” 

AS: Does it require a certain suppression of one’s ego to play that role? 

RI: Yes, but I think you have to have the confidence to know that you can allow other people to voice their own opinions and yet know when you have to have judgment. I would say that is a primary factor because, in weighing alternatives, some of them might really be bad for the future or for the organization, some might be stellar. You have to help discern what those distinctions are, and that takes a certain amount of confidence in your own ability. I felt extremely well-suited to do that because part of what an editor does is listen to people. You don’t go into an interview with someone and tell them something, you glean what you can from what they say and then you help elucidate and articulate what they’ve actually expressed. And then you put it in some sort of context and present it back to an audience.

I really came [to the AIA] to try to discern what was going to be an appropriate direction. Part of what I did was I brought friends from New York. I brought Michael Bierut down from Pentagram, who was a good friend from the city and has a wonderful mind and fresh way of thinking. And he brought a man named Arthur Cohen, whom I didn’t know, who has a firm called LaPlaca Cohen. They did a survey of 35,000 people — clients, fellow professionals, younger people, older people, the whole gamut — a really authoritative survey about the association and how it’s viewed and so forth. The primary finding was something we knew, but now it was quantified, and that is that people admire architects, but they do not understand them, nor do they know what they do. So, if that’s the case, how can they employ us appropriately? How can they ever pay us? 

[Bierut and Cohen] got up there and, in a very New York way, laid it all out in front of the [AIA] board of directors. And then, so typical of architects, because we’re all trained in criticism, they loved it, they loved the critique. “Give us more! Give us more!” They really bought it. And that, I think, was really the catalyst for a generational change within the organization — not the profession, but the organization.

AS: The complexities of architecture can be hard to communicate to a lay public that may not be interested in complex explanations. But architects also seem to rarely be willing to speak out on big issues that may be more relevant to people outside of the design professions.

RI: The last thing that [Bierut and Cohen] said was to be a bold voice on issues. I really think we’ve only just gotten going with that in the last four or five years. The association, with so many different perspectives, has always been centrist. It has found it difficult to take bold stands, fearing that we would alienate members in some remote state that felt differently from people in some urban state. Actually, ironically, 2016 did that for us. We tried to convince [the new presidential administration] to let us help them figure out how to do infrastructure to include the work of architects: housing, schools, things that we wanted and needed. That blew up, and it was misunderstood as if we were supporting the administration, and that was the last thing we were doing. We’re nonpartisan. But that brouhaha actually clarified for us the need to express our values clearly. And from that time, the board came together. They put out statement after statement of values, things that they care about or that they believe, and they call them “Where We Stand” statements.

The first one that we came out with was immigration. We said we support the ease of access for working within the United States. People from other countries make up a large portion of many architects’ offices across the country. We need those workers, and we need that talent. We covered school safety. We isolated it from guns, because that really is a flashpoint and would skew the argument. This was about school safety and how thoughtful design can create atmospheres that are safer. Then the world changed, and we now have a new strategic plan. It has two primary directions: One is climate action; the other is equity, diversity, and inclusion. 

So, all of a sudden, Bierut and Cohen’s charge to us is being answered willingly by the leadership of the association. And they’re doing it visibly and verbally. They’re standing up for these things that they believe, and they’re doing it for all architects, which is super.

AS: Do you think that the way architects look at themselves and their duty to society has changed much in your time?

RI: I will point out one constant, and that is that we collectively have felt that we can change the world and make it better. I believe architects are optimists. Our projects take 18 months to five years, and so we look to the future. 

When I was emerging from school, architects were passionately engaged with social action and climate. We did passive solar design. The AIA’s Committee on Design was formed about that time. The passive solar design migrated into what has now become climate action. So that was one of the major directions that we pursued. The second was social action. That was a period of storefront architecture, where literally we began to put architects’ offices, and association offices for that matter, on the streetfront, where people could walk by, see, come in, get advice, and, in fact, get designs done. 

And yet, the world shifted. Let’s look at the 1980s. We had a period of extreme prosperity, and we went to postmodernism and ended up putting marble and brass on every building. And the hyper prosperity led to a crash in the early ’90s, and [social action and climate] have now re-emerged. This is really where our hearts and souls are. Socially, obviously we’ve shifted. I think we have been so late to recognize the disparities within equity, diversity, and inclusion, first with women — that cracked the egg, and we now see some growth. It’s about a percent or so a year coming into positions within offices. And now the numbers of women in schools frequently exceeds that of men. 

The racial disparities have been so evident since the death of George Floyd. We were engaged with this at the association well before that. For instance, we were devising what we have called Guides for Equitable Practice. We contracted with the University of Minnesota to do research and to help us create a series of documents that can help people in their practices and their personal lives. Those guides are out there now. But I would say that those more recent events threw all this into a stark relief. So if there’s a change, it’s a cultural change, but it’s a change that was going to be necessary within our profession and in our association. It’s bigger than the association, though. It’s the recognition of the civilization that we’re currently inhabiting. We need to be where we are reflective of the people that we serve.

AS: You mentioned the misunderstanding over AIA’s outreach to the last presidential administration on infrastructure, but the organization’s advocacy efforts are much wider. What other priorities have you been working on?

RI: That’s a good one. Our advocacy program is robust and successful. I’ll give you one good example. If you remember, there was a presidential edict that all federal buildings over a certain dollar amount had to be in a neoclassical style. Well, I don’t have any hair, but it made my hair on fire. I love neoclassical architecture, but no one should dictate a style, ever. We fought that tooth and toenail, and it was immediately overturned by the new administration.

We’ve fought for architects to be included in federal legislation on PPP. We fought for tax advantages for architectural firms. Our language is actually part of the language the Biden administration is using for climate action. A number of the proposals that you will see coming out legislatively from the current administration include the language that America’s architects put in through the association. 

It was more difficult in the last four years, but we were still advocating. We met with Scott Pruitt, who was the head of the EPA, and we basically convinced him to not red-line out Energy Star. That administration was going to wipe out the Energy Star program, and, in that meeting, I think we convinced him not to do that. Advocacy is a bipartisan action. You have to do it, regardless of who is sitting there; you have to convince the powers that be what is important for the built environment in the United States.

AS: So you can convince government of the value of architecture, sometimes, but how’s it going convincing people on the street? We started out with Bierut and Cohen’s diagnosis of architecture’s communication problems, so we might as well end there.

RI: We turned for advice to friends in Texas, to Roy Spence in Austin, who is a genius at plain language and helping people understand complex ideas in a very direct and meaningful way. Together with Spence and his firm, GSD&M, we launched the campaign “Blueprint for Better” to improve the visibility and understanding of architects and architecture. We did some display advertising; we did some television advertising; but I think really the more interesting work has been the volunteer efforts. The CSpence Group, which is an offshoot of GSD&M, helped us craft a new program inviting young filmmakers and young architects to submit to a film competition we call the I Look Up Film Challenge. 

We get upwards of nearly a hundred films annually that are viewed in the hundreds of thousands all over the world. They’re voted on, and there is a winner, and it’s a popular vote. The competition invites people to talk about a topic each year that has something to do with why architecture matters. Some of the people who enter are rising stars in the filmmaking world, and some are collaborations with rising young architects. They’re shown at the Architecture Film Festival and all over the country — in New York, and Washington, and San Francisco. They are also online, on our site, 24/7, telling the story about architects and architecture. That’s just one element in that Blueprint for Better campaign. 

AS: What’s next for you?

RI: I just finished a book in November, and it’s out. Go and buy it. It’s called “Château La Coste: Art and Architecture in Provence.” It’s about a marvelous site with a patron who’s basically built an outdoor museum and it is fabulous and fascinating. Tadao Ando wrote for it. I have another book that I’m talking to the same publisher about that I’m not going to tell you about, because it doesn’t matter. I hope I’ll be doing some consulting and maybe some board service, and teaching and lecturing. I failed to mention that, but I was an adjunct teacher when I was in practice. It’s in in my blood. 

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