The Architects’ Resistance

Anthony Schuman & Chris Barker

TAR_SOM Protest.jpg

The Architects’ Resistance (TAR), an activist network of architecture students and faculty from Columbia, MIT, Yale, and other mostly East Coast schools in the US, emerged from the protests, occupations, and shutdowns of the 1968–69 school year. In its press releases and position papers, TAR described itself as “a communications network, a research group, and an action group . . . concerned about the social responsibility of architects and the framework within which architecture is practiced.” TAR drew inspiration from the flourishing community design movement, and the New Left, civil rights, and antiwar movements, and developed a platform of its own with local and global concerns.

In its “Architecture and Racism” campaign (1969), TAR condemned SOM’s lucrative contract with the Anglo American Corporation to design the Carlton Centre in Johannesburg. Architecture for racists, TAR argued, is racist architecture. In “Architecture and the Nuclear Arms Race” (1969), TAR opposed a new fallout shelter building program for architects and educators sponsored by the Department of Defense and endorsed by AIA leadership. In these and other “radical action projects,” TAR excoriated the architectural profession’s submission to corporate, industrial, and governmental interests. TAR argued that the profession had become dominated by a culture of expertise that, in its acquiescence to power, had reduced architecture to a purely aesthetic and technical undertaking. For TAR this was a moral failure: architecture had divorced itself from its ethical responsibility to society.

TAR lasted for little more than two years but produced a significant series of documents and events. TAR members also participated in or were connected to other activist groups and CDCs including Urban Deadline, Real Great Society Uptown Planning Studio, Urban Planning Aid, Serve the People, and The New Thing in Art and Architecture.

The Real Great Society

Roberta Washington

In 1964 President Lyndon B. Johnson announced his plans to end poverty and racial discrimination—to create the Great Society. In that same year, some former members of a Puerto Rican street gang started their own effort to reform society called the Real Great Society (RGS) in New York City’s East Village. RGS leaders declared that they would “fight poverty rather than each other” to address unmet educational, cultural, and community needs. In 1967 RGS organized a branch in East Harlem to represent Puerto Ricans and Latinos in confronting urban renewal and redevelopment plans that threatened to displace them.

In 1968, a Columbia University School of Architecture design studio, working with RGS’ Willie Vazquez, dedicated a year to East Harlem issues. It was an effort to have the class of mostly white planning students provide the professional expertise needed for the young Puerto Rican activists to challenge the system.

Harry Quintana, a Puerto Rican activist who had attended Howard University’s school of architecture, advanced the view that for the RGS/Uptown Planning Studio (RGS/UPS) to succeed as an architectural advocacy planning group, Puerto Rican architects/planners had to be involved. Approximately ten graduates were recruited. Some observers at the time considered the RGS to be the most progressive community-based organization in East Harlem.

Occasionally, RGS/UPS worked with ARCH, a neighboring planning advocacy organization in Central Harlem. In 1969, Harry Quintana representing RGS/UPS, became the face of orchestrated protests with ARCH that led to Mayor John Lindsay’s appointment of the first minority commissioner to the New York City Planning Commission.

Funded by federal anti-poverty and private foundation grants, the era of RGS/UPS influence was ending by 1971. But during its time the RGS/UPS planned community gardens, responded to the threat of large-scale housing and educational projects, advanced alternate development schemes, and introduced Puerto Ricans in New York to the concept of community advocacy planning.

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

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