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Architects Take Aim at the AIA

Frank Lloyd Wright’s cynical attitude toward the American Institute of Architects, which he never joined, is still held by some architects. In San Diego, there’s a small but steady undercurrent of grumbling from a few of the roughly 1,000 local chapter members and a few non-members.

Here are some of the criticisms:

Some feel there should be more visible results of the AIA’s efforts. They wonder why the $300,000 annual budget doesn’t go toward such essentials as more and better lectures and tours, and a definitive guidebook to local architecture. Among the other questions and criticisms:

Why did the organization oppose all slow-growth measures on the recent San Diego election ballot without developing viable alternatives or polling its membership to get a thorough consensus? How come a recent AIA survey of local architects’ salaries is priced so high ($75) that only the big firms--not individuals--can justify buying it? Was this some kind of Old Boy Network Conspiracy designed to keep the salaries of the bottom-level grunts in check? What, really, does a member get for his or her $143 annual local chapter dues, and the $468 it costs to belong at the local, state and national levels?

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Finally, why does it cost so much to enter the AIA’s local design awards program ($100 per entry), and why is it open only to members, when such competitions in other cities, including San Francisco, are open to all architects?

To be sure, many AIA members--perhaps most of them--are satisfied with the organization. But its detractors are vocal.

“It’s very difficult for me to be involved with a group that’s not active in an environmental sense,” said architect Ken Kellogg, who studied with Wright and--like the master--has never joined the AIA.

Kellogg’s many provocative San Diego home designs, and larger projects such as some older Chart House restaurants and a new chapel in Japan, rank him among the city’s architectural mainstays.

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“I appreciate their giving awards to each other. The problem is you can’t enter if you’re not a member. They’re not interested in architecture. They’re interested in promoting the people in the AIA. To promote the awards as being the best architecture in San Diego is counterproductive to the public interest.”

Other AIA chapters do things a little differently.

In San Francisco, members pay $75 to enter a project in the design awards competition. Non-members may also enter, for a higher fee.

When Wright accepted the AIA’s Gold Medal, its top honor, in 1949, he said that architecture was “in the gutter.” He believed the AIA was just a marketing ruse, and that architects should let their work do the talking.

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Wright was no novice when it came to manipulating the media himself, but he had the AIA pegged. Architect Ed Grochowiak, the local chapter’s 1988 president, concedes that the awards are largely a promotional device, for the benefit of members only.

“To some degree, yes, it’s become a marketing tool,” Grochowiak said. “Obviously, the winners get a lot of mileage out of it in terms of new clients. That’s part of the program. That’s one of the benefits of membership.”

As to where the money from contests goes, Grochowiak said the entry fees don’t even cover expenses.

What about the AIA’s “vote no” stance on the growth measures?

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Grochowiak said the organization made extensive efforts to solicit membership sentiment; in the end, those who expressed opinions didn’t think any of the ballot measures were adequately written. They are hoping for more succinctly worded quality-of-life measures in the future. But why not get some architects actively involved with the growth issue? They could provide valuable insights to city planners.

Architect Wally Cunningham, a Wright disciple who is an associate member of the AIA, wonders why the organization isn’t stronger on historic preservation.

“They haven’t tried to stop Bob Mosher from tearing down the Green Dragon Colony,” he said, referring to architect Mosher’s proposal to develop a hotel in place of the rustic cottages near La Jolla Cove. “I’ve seen no AIA stance on Pueblo Ribera Courts,” the seminal concrete courtyard apartments in La Jolla designed by R. M. Schindler, which are badly in need of restoration.

Grochowiak believes the AIA does support historic preservation, though he said it won’t take positions on individual buildings. There are, for example, such AIA members as architect Jeffrey Shorn, who is on the city’s Historic Site Board. Still, it seems the AIA could re-channel some of its resources toward the preservation, and that it should speak up when specific landmark buildings are in danger. Perhaps this issue should be a new priority added to incoming president Don Hansen’s agenda for 1989.

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As for what members get for their substantial dues, Grochowiak referred to the chapter’s annual report, published in the December newsletter.

A kids’ design contest, talks by people like UC Berkeley architecture professor Spiro Kostof and Progressive Architecture editor Pilar Viladas, the SPARK forums (monthly open discussions of architecture), a high school design competition, a legislative interaction committee, and the Orchids & Onions awards were among the key activities this year.

Grochowiak offers a simple response to some of the complainers.

“It’s a volunteer organization,” he said. “The people making these statements ought to join the AIA or get active. We don’t shape policy sitting in an ivory tower. If people are grumbling, they are probably those who never submit opinions.”

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