Although the United States had produced many fine examples of architectural genius over the course of its first 80 years, it had no codified means of assuring who may be qualified to call themselves an architect nor any way of ensuring professional or ethical standards. Even though men ranging from presidents to industrialists had, themselves, dabbled in architecture – Thomas Jefferson’s design of the University of Virginia being just one such example – the trade was not widely recognized as an important or even respectable profession.
It was for this reason that, in 1857, New York’s top architects got together with the intention of creating a professional organization that would serve themselves and others engaged in their chosen trade in much the same way that the American Bar Association serves the legal profession or the American Medical Association upholds the standards of the medical profession.
It was in this way that the American Institute of Architects came into being. The move would prove wise. The American Institute of Architects would prove to be instrumental in the fomenting of vibrant schools of architecture and structural engineering over the next few decades. At a time when the built environment in the United States was undergoing radical changes, the imposition of rigorous standards and ethical expectations was a means of reassuring a public that otherwise may have not accepted such novelties as riding to the 20th floor in an elevator.
But as it went, with the introduction of the first modern skyscraper, in 1884, the American city quickly began undergoing the transformation from largely earth-bound wood-framed structures to steel-framed obelisks that soared towards the heavens. By 1908, the Singer Building topped the world records for height, achieving a vertical measure of more than 612 feet. Only 20 years before, the tallest building in the world had been a mere sixth of that stature.
The sudden adoption of the skyscraper, made possible by the invention of the elevator and desirable by the invention of air conditioning, began radically changing the way in which the average urban American lived and worked. Suddenly, it was possible for the largest corporations to maintain a headquarters in one building, where the CEO was never more than five minutes from any of his underlings. Companies could now be located within walking distance to the country’s major banks. And people working in cities like New York had access to world-class entertainment, around the clock.
Through it all, the American Institute of Architects was there to ensure public confidence in the built environment.