AIA Meeting: Who’s Afraid of Tom Wolfe?

Times Urban Design Critic

About 4,000 architects converged on this design-conscious city last week for the annual convention of the American Institute of Architects--to congratulate each other, celebrate their craft and call attention to themselves.

Many architects even broke away from the numerous social events, tourist attractions and just looking with mixed emotions at the creations of competitors cluttering the downtown area, to attend the convention’s programs, the theme of which was “Value Architecture.”

However, as explored in various sessions and speeches, the theme sounded more like “value architects” rather than architecture, or at least--giving the practitioners their due--for shaping the environment, for better or worse.

In keeping with this concerted effort to gain attention and perhaps stir some debate over the role of architects, the organization invited Tom Wolfe, a very self-conscious, self-described “chronicler of manners,” to deliver the keynote address, paying him--to the chagrin of many members--a reported lecture fee of $10,000.


The author had provoked a large segment of the architectural community a few years ago with a book entitled, “From Bauhaus to Our House,” a slim, flawed attack on the rise of the austere International Style. Ever since, he has been promoting his book and provoking select architects, recently adding those practicing the Post Modern style of decorating buildings with historical references, whether appropriate or not.

In a double-breasted white suit over a high-collared white shirt that looked as if it had been styled for Herbert Hoover--indeed, looking very Post Modern himself--Wolfe delivered what amounted to a Dean Martin roast of architecture.

Though he distorted some basic architectural history and misrepresented the works of some noteworthy architects and firms, including a number receiving major awards from the AIA at this year’s convention, the audience seemed to love it. So much for professional decorum.

Among the firms ingratiatingly chided by Wolfe was Venturi, Rauch & Scott Brown of Philadelphia, which this year received the institute’s coveted Architectural Firm Award. The firm, which pioneered the Post Modern movement, has garnered numerous design awards during its 20-year history.


Also coming under attack for pursuing Post Modernism, if not simply for executing drawings Wolfe did not like and for being too “campy” in his historical design references, was Michael Graves. The Princeton, N.J.-based architect’s design of the new public library in San Juan Capistrano was one of 12 projects honored by the AIA at the convention.

Chided by Wolfe

Others chided by Wolfe for some design indiscretion or other were Richard Meier and the firm of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. Meier, who is designing the new Getty arts complex in Brentwood, won an honor award for his design of a visitors building in New Harmony, Ind., and SO&M; won for a research and development complex in Tacoma, Wash.

Apparently not yet well known enough to warrant attention fromWolfe was Rebecca Binder of Santa Monica, who with James Stafford of Los Angeles designed a four-unit residential complex in Ocean Park known as Pacific Townhouses. Its strained, strong high-tech design won an honor award in the residential category.


Receiving honors also was writer Esther McCoy of Los Angeles, and the Summer Olympics held in Los Angeles last year, the design team for which included Jon Jerde and David Meckel of the Jerde Partnership and Deborah Sussman and Paul Prejza of Sussman/Prejza & Co. McCoy has been an abiding chronicler of architecture and architects in Southern California over the last 40 years.

Cultural Offerings

Flaunting its architectural heritage with some justifiable pride for the 4,000 architects and 6,000 others who attended the convention (the largest such gathering for the AIA) was the city of San Francisco. It put together a festival called “Settings” which used scattered, architect-designed parks and plazas in the downtown area to stage a variety of cultural offerings, including music and dance concerts.

The city’s various planning and development efforts also were explored in a number of programs, case studies and seminars, with most focusing on the look of the city, not on its needs or how it works and does not work. Apparently it was appearances what visiting architects wanted to hear about and what city boosters preferred to talk about.


So, while an estimated 2,500 persons jammed an auditorium at Moscone Center to hear about the city’s controversial urban design plan for downtown, and its proposed controls of density and form, only about 20 persons attended a nearby workshop on the city’s imaginative efforts to rehabilitate public housing.

Attempting with some success to raise the convention’s political consciousness was the group known as the Architects Designers Planners for Social Responsibility, which, for the first time, was included in the AIA program. Its sessions focused on the nuclear threat.

Observed James Polshek, dean of Columbia University’s school of architecture and moderator of a panel discussing “Vulnerability and Defense, from Carcassonne to Star Wars,”: “We are the antidote for Tom Wolfe.”