No branch of art covers a wider field than architecture; no branch ministers more to the comfort, luxury, and convenience of the people; yet none receives less attention and encouragement from public sources in America.” While those salient points might have been written yesterday, they were penned by a group of young architects on January 18, 1881, who set out to redress a list of grievances. The group, which included Cass Gilbert, was called the Architectural League. Initially rooted in New York City, it has grown and prospered, sharing the story about architecture with the larger culture. We celebrate its 125th anniversary this year.
While associations such as the AIA primarily and justly concern themselves with professional matters, the league has always held the art of architecture at its core: Earliest meetings consisted of sketching sessions that would ultimately result in exhibitions of members’ work. Along the way, the organization expanded its brief to include lectures, symposia, competitions, and social events, never abandoning the understanding of its central mission. Hugh Ferriss, architect and delineator extraordinaire, captured an essential organizational goal in 1944: “I should think this League would be proud to assist in the reintegration of two of Man’s greatest impulses: the impulse to make things work and the impulse to make them beautiful.”
Rosalie Genevro, the organization’s executive director, echoes Ferriss’s statement when she explains that the league “talks about New York, not as an advocacy group, but in thinking about how to make New York more beautiful.” Along the way, the league has examined new forms of housing, discussed the role of skyscrapers, considered what makes a productive park project—all of which “resonate with the early years,” she says. The discussions often prove as crucial as the work, leavening all our thinking for subsequent projects.
Furthermore, the league has always served as a meeting ground for people outside the formal discipline of architecture, including planners, graphic artists, writers, and patrons of the arts. Here has been a place where the educated public could encounter this seemingly esoteric subject; where it could be demystified for them in the process; and where they could be introduced to real architects in high-minded symposia or rambunctious gatherings, such as the league’s fabled Beaux-Arts Ball.
Architectural Record, among other organizations, has maintained a strong relationship with the league, providing members and leaders of the it, from the early days of two-term president Russell Sturgis (record’s esteemed 19th-century critic) until today. Current deputy editor Suzanne Stephens and contributing editor Michael Sorkin continue the tradition, serving as longtime board members.
It might be tempting for readers outside of Gotham to wave off the league as parochial (New Yorkers do tend to talk to each other), if its activities and programs didn’t reach beyond the five boroughs. On the contrary, architects in San Francisco often know just whom the league has chosen for its current season of “Emerging Voices,” a vital system of recognizing significant new talent in North America, or its Young Architect program, for example, which highlights the work of architects who have finished school within the past 10 years.
Current president Wendy Evans Joseph notes the league’s commitment to “the larger community,” which has attracted international interest, as well as the fact that the league is “opening itself to the globalization of architecture.” Though she credits the league for helping to heighten public awareness, “that doesn’t necessarily translate into public funding.” There is homework left to be done.
We recognize the work of organizations that are educating and involving the public in architecture, such as the National Building Museum, the American Architectural Foundation, and the Chicago Architectural Foundation. January 18, however, signals a unique moment, when 125 years ago the art of architecture took a bold step forward. So to the young architects who kicked it off then, to their progeny who continue the tradition, and to all who love architecture, we salute the Architectural League.