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Inside the AIA’s efforts to address #MeToo

Architecture’s largest professional organization is using an ethics code to fight sexual harassment. Will it work?

Last spring, Frances Halsband—one of New York City’s most respected and accomplished architects—was having the same conversation over and over again: What the hell is going on in architecture?

After multiple women accused the movie producer Harvey Weinstein of sexual harassment and misconduct in the fall of 2017, women who have had similar experiences in other fields became emboldened to speak out. The #MeToo movement, which civil rights activist Tarana Burke began in 2007, went mainstream and hit politics, publishing, television, comedy, and architecture.

In March 2018, the New York Times published a story in which five women accused Richard Meier—the architect of stark, white modernist buildings like the Getty Center—of sexual harassment. It forced architects to confront the longstanding inequities in architecture, including how the profession enables harassment.

But how to address, and correct, these issues remains a fraught topic. After the Times’s story, action—aside from a few organizations distancing themselves from Meier—was measured. The American Institute of Architects (AIA)—a national member organization representing about 94,000 architects and industry professionals, and the most public-facing organization affiliated with architecture—put out a statement denouncing sexual harassment but stopped short of denouncing Meier himself.

“Architects stand together to reject sexual harassment,” the AIA’s statement read. “Architects stand together to support those who are threatened or abused. Architects stand together to build a model profession that welcomes everyone to safe, healthy, and equitable workplaces.”

A cropped hand draws a woman on blue drafting paper. Illustration.

Membership in the AIA—which costs between $260 and $630 per year—gives members, which include architectural professionals as well as licensed architects, credibility with both their peers and the public. And in the very competitive business of architecture, this means a greater ability to command more money from clients. Examining the power of gatekeepers like the AIA—specifically as it relates to those who are marginalized because of sexual harassment—is one of the most pressing issues in the fight to make architecture an equitable industry.

For Halsband, generic statements weren’t enough. The sexual harassment issues that surfaced in the Meier story and the AIA’s lack of action frustrated her and her colleagues. “We were drinking wine with each other and saying, ‘This is terrible! Isn’t it terrible?!’ And no one was doing a damned thing,” says Halsband, a former dean of Pratt’s School of Architecture who was elected the first female president of the New York chapter of the AIA for its 1991-1992 term.

So in May 2018, Halsband circulated a petition called “Fellowship is Leadership,” which asked architects to commit to creating a “professional environment of mutual respect, free of discriminatory, intimidating, abusive, or harassing behavior, for all members of our professional community.” She sent it to a few friends and colleagues. Soon, she had nearly 600 signatures and decided to take her petition to the AIA.

One month later, Halsband introduced a resolution to amend the AIA Code of Ethics. As written, her resolution would require members of the AIA to treat all design professionals and staff equally and to explicitly prohibit sexual abuse and harassment within the architecture community.

The resolution passed, after much debate. And the update to the Code of Ethics stands as the main policy change the AIA has undertaken with regard to addressing sexual abuse and misconduct in architecture. But what effect will it really have?

Post-Meier, the AIA has centered its efforts to stop sexual harassment by affirming good behavior in the profession. It’s using positive reinforcement to address sexual harassment and discrimination by saying the best work emerges from firms that embody equitable practices, and using that as the foundation of its strategy to incentivize better behavior.

“Sexual harassment is part of a larger conversation we’ve been having for many years about how can we, as a larger group of architects, really celebrate creating workplaces that allow everyone to thrive,” says Emily Grandstaff-Rice, chair of the AIA’s Equity in Architecture Commission and director-at-large of the AIA Board of Directors. “We know there’s a connection between healthy workplaces and the product of our work... If people are inspired and feel comfortable, they can do their best work.”

It hasn’t, however, made significant changes to the policy surrounding checks on ethical behavior. Because of that, some architects say the changes to date have been largely symbolic, and don’t go far enough to dismantle the systems that enable sexual harassment. Meanwhile, the AIA’s organizational structure presents a challenge to enforcing anti-harassment policies. The national AIA organization charters local chapters—there are over 200 around the world—which are separate legal entities, each with its own rules and policies.

The AIA understands how big and unwieldy the task of establishing a code for the profession is. “Skepticism is a natural reaction, so we appreciate and understand that,” a spokesperson told Curbed. “AIA is working to find the best answers to address harassment, discrimination and inequities in the profession. We recognize that it’s going to take a variety of efforts and resources to broaden equity, diversity, and inclusion in the profession and to advance workplace culture.”

Inside the decades-long fight to eliminate inequity in architecture

While #MeToo has amplified calls for gender equity in architecture, women have been working to reform the profession since the late 1800s, when Louise Blanchard Bethune refused to compete in an architecture competition due to unequal pay. But it wasn’t until the ’60s and ’70s, during the women’s liberation movement, that architecture began to take structural change more seriously.

In the early ’70s, only 1 percent of AIA members were women (the number of women practicing, however, could have been higher since AIA membership is voluntary). Today the number of practicing architects who are women has increased to between 20 to 25 percent (although the figure drops to 10 to 15 percent when only licensed practitioners are included). There’s more momentum around rectifying inequities—like pay disparity and the dearth of women in leadership positions—and a greater willingness overall to talk about sexual harassment and discrimination. Women are able to organize from greater positions of power—all major cultural shifts from decades ago. But according to the last major survey of the field, women currently hold only 17 percent of partner or principal positions at architecture firms, one among many remaining obstacles to progress.

As in most industries—but particularly because architecture as a field is relatively small, and therefore insular—individuals experiencing harassment directly still fear retaliation if they report it or discuss it with their colleagues. One study found that 75 percent of workplace harassment victims experienced retaliation after they spoke up. To address this issue, the Architecture Lobby, an advocacy group that advances fair labor practices in architecture, launched the Solidarity Bloc, a network of individuals across the country that helps people to find support.

Workplaces with “star” employees are more susceptible to harassment, and architecture is known for elevating the lone genius, who is usually a man, and letting him work in an unchecked way. Nearly 80 percent of architecture firms have nine or fewer employees, and it’s unlikely that these small firms have formal HR departments, which presents a serious barrier for reporting instances of sexual harassment.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act—which prohibits employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of sex, race, color, national origin, and religion—generally applies to workplaces of 15 or more employees (state laws vary). And even in workplaces covered by these laws, incidents like teasing, inappropriate jokes, offhand comments, and microaggressions don’t always amount to unlawful conduct, no matter how problematic they are.

In addition, in an industry where jobs aren’t always stable and employees can be nervous about becoming unemployed at any moment, “those added insecurities create an environment where it’s harder to stand up for yourself,” says Andrea Merrett, a historian who specializes in activism in architecture and is a member of Architexx, an organization that promotes gender equity in architecture.

The landscape is fraught, and this past year, women have doubled down on exposing and airing the problems. Stella Lee, one of the women who accused Richard Meier of sexual harassment, penned a New York Times opinion piece about the lack of accountability in the profession. An anonymous person began and circulated a “Shitty Architecture Men” list, which allowed people to share their experiences involving workplace harassment and name their harassers. Protesters took to major architecture events, like the Venice Biennale and AIA Conference on Architecture, to express how fed up they are with systemic inequities and show solidarity with victims of harassment and misconduct.

How the AIA is approaching #MeToo and gender equity today

This past year, the most tangible structural change surrounding sexual harassment has materialized as updates to codes of ethics in private firms and in architecture’s professional organizations.

As a result of Halsband’s resolution, the AIA updated its Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct. The Code of Ethics is composed of three tiers: rules that are mandatory and enforceable; ethical standards, which are considered aspirational guidelines; and canons, which are broad principles of conduct.

With the 2018 update, the AIA added the word “harassment” to an existing mandatory and enforceable rule, Rule 4.101, which now reads: “Members shall not engage in harassment or discrimination in their professional activities on the basis of race, religion, national origin, age, disability, caregiver status, gender, gender identity, or sexual orientation.”

Other changes include a new rule that states: “Members shall treat their associates and employees with mutual respect and provide an equitable working environment.” While a rule stating that “Members shall not engage in conduct involving the wanton disregard of rights of others” was already in the Code of Ethics, the AIA added the commentary: “Wanton disregard under this rule also includes engaging in conduct that is severe or pervasive enough that a reasonable person would consider it harassing, hostile, or abusive.”

In November 2018, the AIA also released the first few chapters in its Guides for Equitable Practice, a manual intended to help firms adopt better business practices. Written in partnership with the University of Washington and the University of Minnesota, the Guides for Equitable Practice are modeled after the Parlour Guides, a set of best practices from an influential Australian advocacy group for women in architecture. This summer the AIA released three more chapters in its guide.

Local AIA chapters have also been taking up the charge, and in ways that are more progressive and action-oriented than AIA National, which sets top-level best practices.

After the accusations against Richard Meier, the AIA’s New York City chapter (AIANY) rescinded an Honor Award that was to be given to his firm. Groups like EquityxDesign, from AIA’s San Francisco chapter (AIASF), continue to survey the profession and provide quantitative data about underrepresented groups in architecture (the surveys began in 2014). The AIA’s Los Angeles (AIALA) chapter published equity, diversity, and inclusion best practices in August. In February, AIANY lobbied the state’s governor and legislature to enact stronger worker protections. It also hosted a Women in Architecture panel to discuss #MeToo and related issues.

Rosa Sheng, former board president of AIASF and former chair of its EquityxDesign commission, believes establishing clear guidelines about what constitutes an equitable workplace is essential to eliminating harassment and improving equity. “I think we take for granted what respect means and how it plays itself out in the workplace,” she says. “If there are imbalances in how workplaces are run, there’s exploitation, underpaying, and abuse.”

The effectiveness of the AIA’s resources, like the Guides for Equitable Practice, is debatable. It includes two and a half pages of information on workplace harassment with information on the legal definition of sexual harassment, advice for employers and employees about what to do if an incident arises, and tips on how to create a workplace culture that does not tolerate harassment.

Cynthia Krakauer—an architect, executive director of the Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation, and managing director of AIANY’s Center for Architecture from 2006 to 2016—works with the architecture and engineering firms to evaluate and strengthen company policies that pertain to sexual harassment and discrimination. She doesn’t believe the AIA went far enough. “It didn’t say anything new,” Krakauer says. “It was content that was already in your office manual because these things have been going on for years and years.”

Another change within the past year? AIA members submitting work for awards now must check a box on their application confirming compliance with the code of ethics. To help ensure these behavioral standards are met, it’s working on a new procedure to vet candidates for its awards programs in order to “better address issues of professional character, especially related to harassment of any kind, and to send a clear message that inappropriate behavior will not be tolerated in the profession,” according to a June 2019 news statement.

At the 2019 AIA Conference on Architecture, which took place in June, the organization announced it retained the services of the law firm Covington & Burling LLP and its partner Eric Holder Jr., former attorney general in the Barack Obama administration, to conduct a comprehensive review of how the organization selects recipients of its Honor Awards, one of its most prestigious accolades, and decides who is elevated to the College of Fellows (FAIA), a group of AIA members considered to be the most exemplary architects. It also announced plans to conduct random background checks on award nominees, but did not specify what would be under the purview of those checks. The new policy will only impact future awards recipients and is not retroactive or retrospective.

The AIA isn’t alone in using codes of conduct to address sexual harassment. NCARB—the organization overseeing licensure requirements—also released a new version of its model rules of conduct in 2018, which serves as a starting point for state licensure boards to create their own codes.

How effective can the AIA’s policy really be?

The main enforcement mechanism for the AIA’s Code of Ethics is a group known as the National Ethics Council (NEC), which is composed of seven people appointed by the AIA board of directors. If someone believes an AIA member has violated the Code of Ethics, the protocol is for the person—who can be an AIA member or anyone directly aggrieved by the conduct of a member—to file an ethics violation complaint. It’s a long and complicated process, like bringing a case to a court of law. According to the NEC’s rules of procedure, any ethics violation complaint must be filed within one year of the alleged violation and the NEC chair reviews all complaints to make sure they meet specific requirements before they proceed to a full review.

Sharyn Tejani, director of the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, a subsidiary of the National Women’s Law Center, says that having a policy is a good first step to addressing harassment, but in order for it to make a difference, it needs full institutional support.

“In general, policies are great and important but they are only as useful as their implementation,” she says. “You can have a successful policy, but if no one knows about it? If no one knows how to complain? If when they complain they’re harassed or their career becomes a difficulty to maintain? Then that’s not at all helpful.”

According to Tejani, indicators that a policy is receiving full institutional support and is taken seriously include discussing the policy frequently and ensuring that the people responsible for enforcing the policy report to the highest level of leadership.

The AIA believes its sexual harassment policies, prevention resources, and complaint mechanisms are easily accessible through its website.

An AIA chapter response to a sexual harassment complaint, however, didn’t satisfy the individual bringing the complaint. In 2017, a woman—who spoke to Curbed on the condition of anonymity—reported an incident of alleged sexual assault by a senior-level AIALA employee to the chapter’s leadership. It took a year for the chapter to begin an investigation, and the third-party consultant hired by the chapter did not speak to the three witnesses the accuser provided before reaching a conclusion.

Carlo Caccavale, executive director of AIALA, says the delay in beginning the investigation was due to being unsure of whether or not the accuser wanted AIALA to investigate (it had apparently offered the accuser the option and the accuser did not follow up, according to Caccavale). But when AIALA learned through “third parties,” per Caccavale, that the accuser was dissatisfied with the organization’s failure to investigate, AIALA initiated an investigation and hired an outside consultant to conduct it. Whether the investigator had good reasons not to speak to the three witnesses the woman had provided is open for debate, but the chapter reached its conclusion on the matter without having spoken to the individuals with whom the accuser shared her story following the alleged incident.

The anti-harassment HR policies for employees at at individual AIA chapters are different from the AIA Code of Ethics for AIA members. According to an AIA spokesperson, “AIA state and local chapters are required to address harassment complaints using their own harassment policies. AIA National provides a model anti-harassment policy for the information of the chapter. Every state and local chapter must adopt a policy that reflects the applicable legal requirements for the locality in which it is incorporated and does business.”

Additionally the reporting structures and enforcement mechanisms at individual AIA chapters for handling sexual harassment complaints aren’t the same as the NEC’s procedure for reviewing ethics complaints. However, based on her experience reporting an alleged sexual assault to AIALA, this woman believes it reflects an institutional shortcoming within the AIA about dealing with #MeToo in a meaningful way.

“It’s hard to see how [the AIA] would be effective in terms of overseeing any kind of abuse within the architecture community when they can’t do it within their own employees,” the woman who reported the alleged incident tells Curbed. “It’s easy to produce a policy statement and guidelines when it’s all theoretical... If they can’t get a grip on their own employees, what faith do I have in what they’re doing for the industry at large? Zero.”

High barriers for reporting have historically been hindrances for filing complaints about harassment, generally, thereby enabling it to go unchecked.

The new Code of Ethics rule includes no changes to the process of filing a complaint, and it’s relatively rare for these complaints to be filed in the first place. Jay Stephens, AIA’s general counsel and vice president, says the number could be anywhere between 12 and 25 a year. An AIA spokesperson declined to state how many reports of sexual harassment or abuse the NEC receives per year since it “maintains discretion and confidentiality throughout the process... It’s confidential with the intention of protecting both the person submitting the complaint and the person who allegedly violated the Code of Ethics.”

When it comes to issues surrounding sexual harassment, AIA leadership at the national and chapter levels is more focused on positive reinforcement than punitive measures.

“We are not the police,” says Benjamin Prosky, executive director of AIANY. “Oftentimes we’re conflated as being a kind of judiciary branch for the architecture world. But we are really, in the best case scenario, a place for resources, information, and support.”

These AIA resources—like affinity groups, mentoring programs, and anti-harassment workshops—are indeed important and useful, as many women who are involved with anti-harassment activism in architecture told Curbed.

Emily Grandstaff-Rice echoes the emphasis on offering resources. “I don’t necessarily want an organization to tell me what to do, but to help me be the best that I can be,” she says. “That’s my member perspective and also my board perspective. I think it’s to set standards and to aspire to be great professionals.”

Asked about whether or not the AIA perceives itself as a behavioral enforcer, an AIA spokesperson replied: “A better question to ask is does the AIA enforce its Code of Ethics, and the answer to that is yes.”

In the past, rather than file a formal complaint, some AIA members have simply reached out to Jay Stephens with reports of “microaggressions, inappropriate remarks, inappropriate comments, and folks that are inappropriate,” he says. Such actions might not rise to the legal standard of harassment, but are problematic nonetheless. Stephens has taken it upon himself to investigate.

“If I receive a report, then I will follow up personally,” Stephens says.

He typically receives a full account of the alleged incident from the person reporting it. He seeks accounts from people who might have witnessed the alleged incident and the person accused, and he asks for other evidence. If the evidence and accounts support the complaint, Stephens looks for two things from the accused: acknowledgement that what they did was wrong and assurance from that it won’t happen again. “When that person is contacted by the general counsel of the American Institute of Architects, generally that person takes that seriously,” he says.

Having one person determine fault in a he-said, she-said scenario is obviously an imperfect accountability mechanism, but the backchanneling to Stephens shows that there is demand for a secondary avenue to report problems. Advocacy groups like Architexx and the Architecture Lobby have also heard from architects wanting new ways to report harassment during forums about architecture’s harassment issues.

“When the Richard Meier article came out, HR departments were probably very sensitive to any reporting that happened at that point,” Architexx’s Merrett says. “But so many offices are small and don’t have HR, so you don’t have anyone to report to.”

Why the AIA’s power is relative

Interested parties may wonder whether a membership organization like the AIA can become a vehicle for harassment reporting. However, the strongest punishment the AIA can levy on its own is terminating membership; it cannot suspend or revoke architecture licenses. State licensing boards, which are wholly unaffiliated with the AIA, hold the most legal authority over architects since they determine who can and can’t practice.

And while the AIA can terminate an architect’s membership for violating the code of ethics, in practice, it rarely does; the AIA says it has ended memberships and publishes termination notices in its Architect magazine, but did not provide a number. Generally, the organization does not want to rankle dues-paying members.

The voluntary, fraternal nature of the AIA is part of why the organization itself doesn’t have teeth, says Gabrielle Bullock, director of global diversity at the architecture firm Perkins and Will and a member of the AIA’s Equity in Architecture commission. “The AIA is going to lead with what their members want and so they’re almost always reacting. Most member organizations are in a reactive mode when it comes to the issues. They’re more proactive in continuing education, and providing resources. The ‘good’ stuff.”

Peggy Deamer, a Yale professor and founding member of the Architecture Lobby, however, believes some of the AIA’s limitations—like the notion that it isn’t there to police members—are self-imposed by its leadership.

“For me, it’s an example of caution, caution, caution, polite, polite, polite,” she says. “One of the things that strikes me about the AIA—in comparison to other national professional architectural organizations like the Royal Institute of British Architects—is that the AIA seems constitutionally interested in painting a really positive picture of the profession. Things are good. We’re happy. Join. Celebrate. Make FAIA. Have parties. They have a very hard time recognizing the seriousness of the [sexual harassment and discrimination] problem.”

Legal precedent suggests why the AIA isn’t taking a stronger stance on governing its membership. Deamer points to antitrust rulings that have made it so workers can claim that having to adhere to a certain code hampers them from competing effectively in the free market—and causes them to lose money.

The primary example concerns a case from the 1970s in which the AIA suspended Aram Mardirosian for seeking a contract that was already awarded to another architect by underbidding him. Mardirosian sued the AIA, alleging that the ethics rule kept him from running a competitive business, and won. The AIA had to pay him $700,000 in damages.

It was in the same era that the AIA first attempted to update its Code of Ethics to make the industry more welcoming to women. In 1973, it convened a Task Force on Women in Architecture, a group that suggested including language that said anything denying women equal participation in the profession, including sexual harassment, would violate the ethics code.

However, after losing the Mardirosian case, the AIA suspended its entire Code of Ethics and didn’t adopt another one until 1986. Curiously, this one was lacking any verbiage about women, discrimination, and harassment.

The AIA’s continuing-to-be-cautious approach comes at a cost: It leaves many of its members vulnerable. “We have a wide range of political opinions, personal opinions, and revenue streams,” says Katherine Darnstadt, a Chicago-based architect and AIA member. “And we’re a ‘big tent organization’ to bring everyone in. But if we’re also not ‘big tent’ about keeping everyone safe, then we’re not just undermining our buildings, we’re undermining our ability to actually have an ethical profession.”

What’s Next?

The AIA’s strategy of incentivizing strong ethics in an industry that thrives on exploitative practices—like unpaid internships, long hours, and unsafe construction conditions—feels like fighting a four-alarm fire with a garden hose. Ethical transgressions are often overlooked. Despite numerous allegations of sexual harassment levied against him, Richard Meier is still working, and while his reputation is tarnished to some, it’s still quite valuable to others. Public shaming isn’t always a match for the broader ecosystem.

In a February Bloomberg story, Richard Meier Partners’s managing principal, Bernhard Karpf, commented that business remained the same since #MeToo and that his firm’s name is still used in developers’ advertising. “Obviously, it’s not the toxic thing we thought it would be,” he told the reporter.

Dismantling a system that enables harassment will take more than laying out ethical standards and having a few good actors abiding by them. Unless AIA takes a firmer stance on abolishing harassment—which includes ensuring harassers don’t have access to the power that the AIA instills through membership, awards, and access to a larger platform—change will remain agonizingly slow. Architectural professionals who work for small firms, are part of historically marginalized groups, or are young and inexperienced will continue to experience harassment and discrimination and won’t have a real way to report wrongdoing.

“I would like it if we as a profession found a way to prevent that behavior before we have to punish it,” Perkins and Will’s Bullock says. “But there really is no check unless there’s a grassroots effort [from AIA members to call for those things]. The changes [so far] have been, unfortunately, from victims who found their voice to speak up. For the foreseeable future, that’s how things are going to change and how bad behavior is going to be spotlighted.”

Even with the limitations of power at the AIA, Frances Halsband believes the organization is still the place where change needs to happen. “There are a lot of well-meaning people in the AIA,” Halsband says. “It’s hard to get people to recognize change. To me, change will happen if we keep the pressure on… Let’s go where the power is.”

Anyone with information about alleged misconduct in the architecture, design, and development industries can contact Curbed’s editor-in-chief, Kelsey Keith, at We are accustomed to discussing sensitive information and stories over the phone, so feel free to send an email asking for a phone call. You can also send tips using the app Signal, which encrypts text messages and voice calls. Tip Curbed via Signal here: 267-714-4132.