Architecture in Turbulent Times: “You have to start with justice”

The built environment is meant to reflect who we are.

When architects discuss ways to secure a more just future for the profession, “equity,” “diversity” and “inclusion” are all vitally important words – but ultimately, they are just words. When it comes to truly shifting the demographics of architecture, a profession where Black Americans in particular are still underrepresented, larger systemic changes need to be implemented at every step of the process, from career awareness, education and culture, to firm succession planning.  

“It’s now or never to have this conversation,” said Gabrielle Bullock, FAIA, director of global diversity of Perkins and Will. On August 12 Bullock participated in a panel discussion titled “The State of Equity in Architecture” during AIA’s one-day virtual event Architecture in Turbulent Times: Equity, Environment, Health, & Economy. During a 45-minute discussion, Bullock, along with Yiselle Santos Rivera, AIA, director of justice, equity, diversity & inclusion at HKS, and Tamarah Begay, AIA, principal-in-charge of Indigenous Design Studio + Architecture, emphasized the challenges to their success, and the success of women and architects of color more generally, posed by a historically white male profession. All three women shared a commonality in why they wanted to become architects in the first place: to build a connection between those that experience the built environment and those that create it.  

Speaking as one of 478 Black female architects currently licensed in the country, Bullock said that she knew she wanted to be an architect from the age of 12 because she “saw and felt the inequity in how people of color, particularly Black people, lived.”

“It was a real response to public housing [projects] and how awful they were, and how they didn’t do anything to uplift people of color,” she said.

Santos Rivera had similar negative experiences with the built environment while in college in her native Puerto Rico.

“It was very much my experience that led me to architecture,” she said. “I hated the non-contextual spaces I studied in. So I wanted to have an opportunity to create spaces for people to belong.”

In addressing the lack of diversity in architecture, Bullock said, “This is a humanity issue. This is not just a racism issue that black people or people of color need to solve. It is impacting all of us, and I think what got us here is a very narrow view of what design is and how to impact the built environment.”

All three women agreed that architects must adequately represent the communities that they serve, especially in a nation that is growing increasingly diverse. “If we can’t be of the community, then we have to research to become culturally competent, or partner with individuals in our industry to help get there. We have to turn everything on its head, we have to change the status quo if we’re going to advance the profession and be more inclusive,” Bullock said. And, as Santos Rivera pointed out, it needs to start with education.

Addressing education and succession

One of the clearest and most obvious ways to diversify the profession, of course, is to address the issue of who gets to attend architecture school, which often comes with a hefty price tag. According to NCARB, racial and ethnic diversity continues to improve in the early career stages of architecture, with 45 percent of new AXP participants and 33 percent of new exam candidates identifying as non-white in 2017.

“We learned in a very Eurocentric way, we practice in a very Eurocentric way,” Bullock said. Without professors of color and a change in curriculum to represent the full spectrum of cultures in America, she emphasized, design schools won’t be able to fully embrace the diversity of their students in a meaningful way, even if numbers of diverse students do increase.

When it comes to ethnic, cultural and gender diversity in firm leadership, the numbers largely remain stagnant. A major factor in these stubborn statistics is the lack of opportunities for advancement that many women and people of color face when trying to move past the beginning stages of their architecture careers. Firms who are able to be honest and transparent about the diversity gaps within their ranks will better be able to address the issues head-on.

“A lot of things, much more than at any other time, are allowing us to see the system,” Santos Rivera said. “The system that builds onto itself, that creates the outcomes that we see today.”

This corroborates with Begay’s experience of attempting to earn the title of principal at her first place of employment. She emphasizes that employing a diverse group of staff should be more about making a difference rather than checking a box or filling a quota to improve the firm’s statistics. She says that despite being very vocal at her then-firm, she was not receiving the right opportunities for advancement, which spurred her to leave and found her own business.

“It’s about giving ‘minority’ people opportunities and not just putting them behind the computer and having them do CAD drawings,” she said.

Using metrics to benchmark progress

Unless the problem is fully acknowledged, it can’t be addressed, say Bullock, Begay and Santos Rivera.

“When you say you don’t see color, the reality, how it feels, is that you don’t see me,” Santos Rivera said.

All three women recommend several tools to use when assessing justice and equity within your firm or organization: the JUST Label, the UN Global Compact, and SEED, among others. These tools require firms to look at the current state of diversity in their workforce, assess their baseline, set goals for the future and, most importantly, be transparent about the process.

“Diversity and inclusion have been openly discussed, but race has not been,” Bullock said. “It has been a messy and uncomfortable topic to discuss until now. It’s still uncomfortable, but we must discuss it because it has real impact on how we design.”

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