Big Architecture: AIA New York Has Shaped the City, But Can it Reshape City Hall?

Architecture rings his bell. (Emily Nemens)

Civic life is not new to the AIA. The organization was founded shortly after the Panic of 1857, when the recession made it almost impossible to find work—not unlike today. Following the Civil War, the institute relocated to Washington, where most work was being done for reconstruction. Momentarily bereft, New York architects founded their own chapter of the now-national organization in 1867.

For many years, the focus was on professional development, lobbying for standard practices at a time when buildings were designed as often by developers and builders as by trained architects. The AIA did play a role in the adoption of the first zoning code in 1916, and there was a particularly active period in the 1960s, when the likes of Philip Johnson marched on Penn Station—architecture was going through a particularly radical moment, like everything else in the world. But with the great moderation of the ’80s and ’90s, the industry largely left the politics to its development masters.

“That was one of the reasons I took the job,” Mr. Bell said, “I thought there was a lot of potential for greater public engagement.”

The Center was one of Mr. Bell’s first great achievements at the AIA, and it underscores this public commitment. Opening in 2003 at 536 LaGuardia Place, it has become a place not only for architects to gather but also those they hope to influence. The Center hosts hundreds of exhibitions, talks, forums and meetings a year, bringing architects, stakeholders, elected and appointed officials and the public into a space obsessed with how design shapes the city and daily life. Ms. Perlmutter said that she was never interested in joining the AIA until she made a visit to the Center for Architecture. Dozens of chapters across the country have since followed suit opened their own versions, and the one here just expanded into a storefront next door to accommodate more exhibitions and activities.

The Center also helped raise awareness of the AIA and the expertise of its members, and the Bloomberg administration began reaching out, looking for input on programs ranging from PlaNYC to the Green Codes Task Force. The AIA was chiefly responsible for the new Active Design Guidelines implemented in 2010, which urge architects and developers to create “healthier” buildings–better lighting, better air quality, better stairs. It also sponsored the urbanSHED design competition on behalf of the DOB, which created new, cathedral-like sidewalk sheds that will promote better circulation and aesthetics.

Still, the organization oftentimes felt like it was on the outside looking in when it came to major political decisions affecting the construction trades, development and zoning. “These things give you a seat in the room, but it doesn’t get you a seat at the table,” Ms. Perlmutter said. “A seat at the table means your ideas are coming up early in the discussion and they’re respected and listened to and people go, ‘Oh, my god, we have all these experts here, let’s use them.’”

The first step was hiring Jay Bond, the former director of land-use at the City Council, who left after his boss, former Councilwoman Melinda Katz, lost her bid to become city comptroller. He is serving as the AIA’s first full-time policy director, and his knowledge of not only land-use minutiae but also the inner workings of city government, as well as his connections there, has helped the AIA make its case in the right way to the right people. The organization has also retained the services of the Marino Organization, a PR shop with deep ties to Big Real Estate and City Hall, and lobbying outfit Capalino+Company, which does work in politics, community and cultural circles.

Beyond the Hub, the AIA is now trying to tackle such broad issues as reforming the land-use review process and ending the statute of repose, which holds architects liable for the life of their buildings. Lawsuits are rare, but the insurance can be crippling, and New York and Vermont are the only places to require it. The AIA has also been encouraging architects to join their local community boards.

“This is not a nice way to think about it, especially if you’re me,” said Steven Spinola, the influential head of the Real Estate Board, “but I think some people, when they hear somebody in real estate is proposing something, they think they’re doing it because of money. And when they think of somebody in the architecture world or the planning world is doing something, they are doing it for the architecture and so forth. So I think there is significant creditability there that’s automatic.”

Big Architecture: AIA New York Has Shaped the City, But Can it Reshape City Hall?