Published October 2020
Timing is Everything
By Jen Levisen
With a goal to support, inspire and empower the next generation of architects, the Architects Foundation, the philanthropic partner of The American Institute of Architects, has been working over the last three years to build a platform that allows for a broader conversation about the inspirational nature of the industry and the impact architecture has on the world.
“The foundation’s headquarters, The Octagon, is a place of inspiration, but we’ve struggled with how to bring this historic place to life and how to bring it into context with today’s world,” says Marci Reed, the foundation’s executive director.
“It’s through partnerships, like ours with Mortarr, that we’re able to have a broader conversation not only about the inspirational nature of architecture, but also the work that architects are trying to do around equity, justice, and climate change.”
A History Lesson
The American Institute of Architects was founded in 1857 in New York. As part of the role of the AIA was to lobby on behalf of its members the decision was made to move the organization to Washington, D.C., before the turn of the century.
“An architect named Glenn Brown came to D.C. to scout locations and when he found The Octagon, which is an exquisite example of federal architecture, so close to the White House and the capital, he fell in love,” says Reed.
Completed in 1801, The Octagon House was constructed by enslaved workers for John Tayloe III and his wife Ann Ogle Tayloe, one of Virginia’s most prominent families. The home was designed by William Thornton, the first architect of the United States Capitol.
In 1814-15, The Octagon served as the White House for James and Dolley Madison after the Burning of Washington.
The Tayloe family lived in the home until Anne’s death in 1855. Her sons then rented the home, first to a Catholic girls’ school and later to the federal government for office space. By the 1880s, the building housed numerous poor families as a tenement.
The AIA rented the home in 1898 and quickly got to work restoring it. The organization purchased the building in 1902 and used it as its headquarters through 1970. In 1970, The Octagon was first opened to the public as a museum.
Interested to know more about The Octagon? Check out the Architects Foundation’s Mortarr profile for a guided digital tour of the home.
Currently operated by the Architects Foundation, The Octagon is closed due to COVID-19, but under normal operations offers self-guided tours, permanent and changing exhibitions, public programming, and guided tours by appointment.
“Along with programming The Octagon, we also oversee the AIA’s diversity scholarships,” says Reed. Those scholarships were an answer to the AIA’s work of determining what the profession needed most — a pipeline of diverse talent for the future of the industry.
In 1968 Whitney Young was invited to speak at the AIA National Convention. At the time a lot of tenement housing was being built in major cities and, “some AIA members felt that while they were supposed to be building communities, what they were actually doing was segregating the poorest of the poor from opportunity,” says Reed.
Young challenged the AIA to start a scholarship program for minorities and the disadvantaged, which the organization did in 1970 after three black architects received a half a million dollars in funding from both the Ford Foundation and the AIA. These funds were not endowed, however, so the AIA recommitted $1M in funding in 2016 — half in an endowment, and half being currently expended.
“A quote from Young during his speech," says Reed, "was, 'You are not a profession that has distinguished itself by your social and civic contributions to the cuase of civil rights ... You are most distinguished by your thunderous silence and your complete irrelevance.'"
Read Young's full speech.
In 1972, the AIA created an award to honor architects and organizations that progressed social justice and named it for Young who had died the year before in a drowning accident.
Reed joined the Architects Foundation in 2017 and since then, her main focus has been wrapping The Octagon into the AIA’s and Architects Foundation’s work on equity and inclusion, which has now become increasingly urgent and important.
“In early 2018, in honor of the fiftieth anniversary of Young's challenge we launched an exhibit on him at The Octagon,” says Reed. “It was the first time we had taken this historic building and brought it thematically in with the foundation’s efforts to support the profession through scholarships and grants around equity and inclusion.”
Another exhibit, and another example of The Octagon illustrating the foundation’s work, was on historically black college and universities (HBCUs).
Check out the highlight reel of the “Placemaking at HBCUs and the State of the Dream,”
The museum’s most recent exhibit, which they finished installing the week before St. Patrick’s Day, or maybe better known as the week before most of the country’s stay at home orders went into place, is on architect E. Fay Jones’ work at the Crosby Arboretum in Picayune, Miss. Jones, an American architect, was an apprentice of Frank Lloyd Wright, and is a recipient of AIA's highest honor, the AIA Gold Medal.
“While this exhibit doesn’t necessarily touch on diversity, it does speak to climate change and respect for eco systems and sensitivities between the natural and built environments,” says Reed.
“We’ve really hit our stride in being able to use the octagon to work with the foundation’s greater mission to attract, inspire, and invest in the next generation of architects.”
Timing is Everything
While Reed and The Octagon staff never imagined they’d have to close their doors the same week they opened a new exhibit, “unlike anything we’ve ever had the opportunity to do,” says Reed, they have been able to pivot.
“We had big plans for 2020,” Reed says. “We were planning to unroll different levels of museum membership, and to rent out space in The Octagon for events; instead we’ve changed course and have ramped up our digital offerings.”
Their website now includes more information about The Octagon, and its program and exhibits page now includes an online version of the Jones’ exhibit as well as a series of children’s activities, The Octivity Series.
“Last year we had the opportunity to work with an architect to do a 3D scan of the building,” says Reed. “We’re looking at translating that scan into a fully digital experience, so that individuals with mobility issues or who might not be able to make the trip to see us in person can still explore the full space.”
That digital experience has become even more necessary now that The Octagon has been closed due to COVID.