Having guided the American Institute of Architects through some turbulent times, Robert A. Ivy announced he will retire at the end of 2021. Since becoming executive vice president and chief executive officer of the organization in February 2011, he has confronted the lingering effects of the Great Recession on a profession composed of mostly small practitioners; technological changes in the way architects work; the growing impact of climate change; and sweeping calls for greater diversity and racial justice.
Ivy faced controversy when, right after the election of Donald Trump in November 2016, he released a statement saying “the AIA and its 89,000 members are committed to working with President-elect Trump to address the issues our country faces, particularly strengthening the nation’s aging infrastructure.” The missive was met by a maelstrom of anger by architects who said the profession needed to resist, not cooperate; some even called for Ivy’s ouster as the head of the organization. He weathered that moment and pushed forward important changes at the 164-year-old association, including a public outreach campaign, a digital transformation of the institute’s operations, and greater engagement on social issues.
Asked why he is retiring now, Ivy, 73, said in a phone interview that, “The organization is in excellent shape with record membership, a solid financial situation, and wonderful plans for a new headquarters building in Washington DC. It just seemed like a good time to step aside.” The AIA recently hired EHDD to renovate and rethink its offices at 1735 New York Avenue, NW, a few blocks from the White House. He said he felt no pressure to leave, but believed that serving nearly 11 years in the top spot was long enough. “CEOs at associations in Washington typically come and go much faster than that,” he said with a chuckle.
“My goal was always to position the association and the profession for the 21st century,” said Ivy. To that end, the AIA has “taken a bolder stance on the most pressing issues facing us, such as climate change and racial equity.” The AIA’s new strategic plan addresses these challenges, he said. Even before the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, the AIA had created, in partnership with the University of Washington and the University of Minnesota, a series of nine guides to help build equity in the architecture profession. The institute has also become a stronger advocate on environmental issues, noted Ivy, and some of its language on climate action made its way into Biden’s agenda. It was instrumental as well in getting the Biden administration to quickly rescind Trump’s executive order promoting neoclassical architecture as the official style for federal buildings. “No one in the government should dictate a particular style of architecture,” commented Ivy.
In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, the AIA helped many architects get loans from the Paycheck Protection Program, he said. Right before the virus emerged, the institute had slightly more than 95,000 members. While that has dipped slightly since then, Ivy said membership is rising again, as architects become more optimistic about their prospects. In April, the Architects’ Billing Index pushed above 50 for the first time in a year, meaning billings for firms are rising.
“Architects by nature are anti-institutional,” noted Ivy. So he has focused during his tenure at the AIA at increasing involvement by creating networks of people who address critical issues such as climate change and diversity. He also oversaw a revamping of the association’s digital platforms, hiring Pentagram and LaPlaca Cohen as consultants to redesign them and shape communications efforts. To make the AIA more agile, Ivy helped downsize its board of directors from more than 50 to between 14 and 16 in any particular year. He is also proud of reconstituting the institute’s philanthropic arm, the Architects Foundation, which funds scholarships for mostly minority students, and creating a council for building-product manufacturers.
Acknowledging the challenges of running a large organization with more than 200 chapters and components in the U.S. and abroad, Ivy noted with a laugh, “Architects can be brilliant and are trained to be critical. They often bring those skills together.”
Before taking the reins at the AIA, Ivy was editor-in-chief of Architectural Record for more than 14 years. While he was at Record, the magazine won numerous awards, and he oversaw coverage of the 9/11 attacks, the rebuilding at Ground Zero, the impact of Hurricane Katrina on Louisiana and the Gulf Coast, and the fallout from the 2008 financial crisis. He said he was also proud of bringing great writers to the pages of the magazine, both those on staff and outside critics such as Michael Sorkin, Blair Kamin, Robert Campbell and David Dillon.
The AIA has hired an executive search firm and formed a search committee to find a new EVP/CEO. The goal is to have this person in place as Ivy steps down at the end of the year. As for advice to his successor, Ivy said, “You can’t impose your ideas on architects, but need to be transparent and a good communicator.”
Ivy has plans to write a new book, serve on some nonprofit boards, and perhaps teach.