Prior to 1857, anyone in the United States who declared themselves to be an architect was one. Despite many great examples of high American architecture prior to that date, there were still no binding rules or tests of admission for someone to become an architect. Anyone, no matter their level of training, knowledge or expertise, had equal claim to anyone else as far as calling themselves an architect was concerned.
This state of affairs was untenable for a profession that aspired to high achievement and import. As a result, in 1857, New York’s most prominent architects combined their efforts and formed the American Institution of Architects, a professional organization that had as its mission the furtherance of the architectural trades through the maintenance of high standards, ethics and excellence of craft.
These efforts proved to be a pivotal action as American cities began a period of unprecedented expansion over the following decades. With the advent of the first true skyscraper in 1884, American architecture entered a boom period that arguably hasn’t abated up to the present. By 1908, the Singer Building in New York City topped out at 47 stories and 612 feet in stature, making it the world’s tallest building, albeit briefly. Only 25 years before, the tallest building had been just a tiny fraction of that height.
The skyscraper marked the beginning of a new paradigm of urban living. And the styles in which these monuments of steel and chrome towered towards the sky were uniquely American in character. It is almost hard to overstate the importance that the establishment of the American Institute of Architects played in all of this. The public, many members of which had grown up in farmhouses and other rural settings, quickly learned to trust their lives to novelties like taking an elevator to the 30th floor. Without this level of public trust, largely instilled by the manifest professionalism required by the AIA of all its members, the great skyscrapers from Chicago to New York would have likely stood vacant. Instead, they became a linchpin in the American project, with the country becoming the dominant economic force on the planet throughout the 20th century.
Today, the AIA is run by renowned architect and historian Robert Ivy. His chairmanship is one that has been held by some of the greatest names in U.S. architectural history. Under his guidance, the organization is intent on designing a better future for all.