Whitney Young's Address to the AIA

Margaret Phalen & Tyler Rukick

Whitney Young Jr. Speaking to AIA National Convention, The American Institute of Architects Archive, Washington D.C., 1968

Whitney Young Jr. Speaking to AIA National Convention, The American Institute of Architects Archive, Washington D.C., 1968

As Whitney Young Jr., executive director of the National Urban League, stood at the podium at the 1968 American Institute of Architects (AIA) national convention in Portland, Oregon, he gazed upon a sea of almost entirely white, male faces. He saw an AIA that appeared unfazed by the changing world, and he seized the opportunity to start a conversation that carries to this day.

“One need only take a casual look at this audience to see that we have a long way to go in this field,” he told a crowd containing some of the most prominent figures in architecture. “You are not a profession that has distinguished itself by your social and civic contributions to the cause of civil rights…You are most distinguished by your thunderous silence.”

Young was frustrated with the growth of stark high-rise housing projects that towered above the nation’s toughest urban neighborhoods. For him, these “vertical slums” marked a failure for city governments and the field of architecture as a whole.

“I can’t help but wonder about an architect who designs some of the public housing that I see in the cities of this country,” he said. “That architects as a profession wouldn’t as a group stand up and say something about this is disturbing to me.”

But as he wrapped up his fiery speech, Young offered a way forward—a dedicated scholarship program aimed at reshaping the profession and the communities it serves.

In the weeks following Young's speech, AIA officials formed a task force on equal opportunity that would open the profession to minority groups and develop architecture programs to improve lives in impoverished urban neighborhoods.

Margaret Phalen is the manager of the Octagon Museum; she has been working with the Architects Foundation since 2014. She is interested in the ways cultural heritage institutions engage communities, and the ways in which people are impacted by, and interact with history. Visit architectsfoundation.org  Margaret@architectsfoundation.org

Tyler Rudick is a writer and graphic designer currently based in the Chicago area. Through his small agency, Valley House Design, he works closely with design groups and nonprofits to communicate their mission and vision. Clients in recent years include the American Institute of Architects, the Art Newspaper, the Menil Collection.Visit valleyhousedesign.com