Racism in the Architectural Profession, by Olivera Neskovic

October 2, 2020

[Reading List]

Architectural History 101: BIPOC Architects in North America

The stories and struggles of BIPOC architects are an understudied and intrinsic part of the architectural profession history in North America. Craig L. Wilkins confirms this when he writes that, “the experience of architects of color is not only that of African Americans themselves. It is that of the American experience in general.”Wilkins maps out the complications that African Americans are faced with while pursuing careers in architecture. He confirms that historically, African Americans have been met with discrimination at every step: through applying to schools while attending inflexible programs focusing on white, western design and finally when seeking employment in the white-male dominated the field of architecture.

In “Designing for Diversity,” Kathryn H. Anthony reveals that the struggle further perpetuates inequality within our field. Feelings of discouragement due to racism and discrimination decrease the chances of pursuing a career in professional architecture practice or academia, such as the case with Marcy Wong. Marcy was an Asian female architecture professor who was denied tenure due to the discomfort of her white male colleagues with her gender and background. Anthony references the American Institute of Architects (AIA) membership statistics from 2002 which reveal that only 8.4% of all tenured architectural faculty at the time were BIPOC.2 Consolidated data on BIPOC individuals practicing within the field was not available at the time, showing how little attention was placed on demographics within the profession.

The process of rebuilding after turbulent histories of oppression can also have ripple effects on BIPOC groups. Many groups are still in the process of healing and repair from years of slavery, residential schools, and segregation, and this greatly affects their visibility within the architectural profession. Until recently, many minority groups have not been able to prioritize receiving architectural education in North America. In an interview conducted by Wahpasiw with Patrick Stewart for the Canadian Architect, and upon asking an Elder within his community, why there is a lack of indigenous architects and students today, Stewart received he following response:  “Lawyers were the first thing we needed, and then when residential schools closed, we needed teachers…. He said, “architecture will come”- it just wasn’t the first priority.”It is evident why BIPOC architects and academics are sparse within the field: the odds of completing an architectural education have historically been against BIPOC due to systemic racism and structural inequalities.

The Making of Today’s Special: Ham Sandwich Architecture

Anthony describes the current lack of diversity within the field entirely when she writes, “in striking contrast to the other arts, architecture remains all too homogeneous: too male, too pale… the architectural world-for the most part-is just a plain old ham sandwich.”4 We know that in diversifying whom we are taught by, work and study with, we can significantly enrich our architectural knowledge. Today, the profession remains stuck within a rigid framework built primarily by white men in the 20th century.

A large part of why architecture has been so slow to change, as opposed to other fields, is the lack of long-term diversity management implementation and the sole dependence on affirmative action. Anthony’s text bristles with examples of accountability, but perhaps the most enlightening example is the R. Roosevelt Thomas method of managing diversity within organizations.In studying the table excerpted from Thomas’ book, we can begin to see just how problematic an organization’s dependence on affirmative action can be. It is only in addressing diversity in a holistic way and with long-term consistency that a change can be observed.

One of the most prominent and effective solutions for increasing diversity remains an increase in the hiring of BIPOC architects. By diversifying the people within a practice or organization, we also diversify the architecture and knowledge that is produced.  Anthony writes that “women can play special roles in transforming both the educational mission and practice of architectural education through the ideals of a liberal education, interdisciplinary connections, the integration of different modes of thought, connections to other disciplines through beginning studios, the reformation of pedagogical practices, collaboration, and caring for and counselling students.”6 Although Anthony’s focus lies primarily on women in architecture, her observations on the lack of gender diversity within the field can be applied directly to racial diversity in contemporary practice.

Architecture Now: How to Learn and Grow from Past Mistakes  

Until now, architecture has been too slow in making significant changes both in education and in the profession. The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement is an awakening to the lack of change in society and also within the field of architecture. The civil movements addressing the unequal treatment of Black people in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s,  “left the country both shaken and chastened with respect to its treatment of people of color.”

This cycle of North Americans suddenly awakening to the horrors of inequality within their society is an all too familiar story that dates back to the abolishment of slavery and brings us to the BLM movement, which has regained speed since George Floyd’s death in May 2020. The general response of architecture within North America following these movements has been great at producing pithy statements and anti-racist manifestos, but this has continuously failed to tackle diversity in a tangible way.

In “Designing for Diversity,” Anthony suggests many methods, some more successful than others, which can be implemented by universities and architectural practices for improving diversity. How can we, as students in architecture, influence the diversity of the profession we are entering? Some of the examples that Anthony provides us with include the introduction of mentorship programs, increased flexibility of working hours, more part-time positions within universities and increased community dialogue through public outreach programs.These are all effective methods for the better inclusion of BIPOC individuals, but Anthony’s and Wilkins’ pieces have been around for twenty and ten years, respectively, with little to no change in the field. It appears that is up to us, students who have yet to enter the profession, to implement and accelerate the changes we want to see in the future.

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1 Craig L. Wilkins, “Race and Diversity,” In Architecture School: Three Centuries of Educating Architects in North American, 374-79. Cambridge, Mass.; Washington, D.C.: MIT Press; Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture, 2012.

2 Kathryn H. Anthony, “Designing for Diversity: Implications for Architectural Education in the Twenty-First Century.” Journal of Architectural Education 55, no. 4 (2002): 257-67. https://doi.org/10.1162/104648802753657969

Omeasoo Wahpasiw, “Learning from Indigenous Consultants,Canadian Architect, September 1, 2020, https://www.canadianarchitect.com/september-2020/, 37.

4 Anthony, “Designing for Diversity,” 266.

5 Ibid, 260-61.

6 Ibid, 258.

7 Wilkins, “Race and Diversity,” 377.

8 Anthony, “Designing for Diversity,” 264-266.

6 responses to “Racism in the Architectural Profession, by Olivera Neskovic”

  1. Aamirah says:

    I resonated with many of Kathryn H. Anthony’s statements on how to reshape architectural education to better reflect women and people of colour in the field. She highlights how diversity is simply reduced to a series of affirmative action policies, accomplishing the bare minimum to deflect any accusations of racial bias and discrimination. Changes in the name of diversifying architectural practice often result in short-term easy solutions, rather than directing attention to long-term progress as time-consuming as it may be. It becomes much easier to divert back to unequitable practices in the absence of these long-term commitments. Both of the readings this week also raise the issue of a universality of expression that is based on the male and white perspective. This is reflective of the nature by which architecture tends to hide and minimize the efforts of BIPOC, making it even more difficult for younger people of colour to see architecture as a viable career path and one in which a person who looks like them can succeed. Some architectural programs across Canada and the globe are responding to recent Black Lives Matter movements with plans to address racial and gender discrimination in design practice. However, I want to understand how we can ensure that diversity extends beyond academia to result in something tangible. Why is it that students are the ones igniting change. That BIPOC must do the extra work to ensure that the architectural profession values and trusts them enough to design the places we inhabit, when for centuries they have had to occupy space designed by and for their white male counterparts without any resistance.

  2. Muhammad Awan says:

    Thank you for sharing a great article Olivera. The struggles of budding BIPOC architects to enter this field is definitely connected to the feelings of discouragement that arise from the knowledge that the field is stuck within a rigid framework. This was vividly and profoundly conveyed in the quote from the Indigenous Elder on needing lawyers first, then teachers, and that “architecture will come.” It powerfully encapsulates how impenetrable the Indigenous community feels this profession to be, that they must conduct a prioritization of this sort, that no doubt compelled burgeoning architects in these communities to abandon their dreams out of necessity. The question then is, if we know that the profession will be enriched by having diversity among teachers, students, and colleagues, and have known this for quite some time, then why does the disparity persist? In this regard, I emphatically agree with your call to action – it is also up to us to enter the field with a conviction for change and a deep desire to garner diverse perspectives.

  3. Andrew Ashbury says:

    Thank you, Vera, and Zoe, for pointing us towards these readings.
    The chronic lack of diversity in architectural education has built a series of compounding systemic problems, leaving the profession spiralling away from societal relevance while perpetuating discrimination. The lack of focus on real socially relevant issues, the lack of public outreach, the lack of support for underrepresented students and faculty, the lack of diversity among students and faculty, the lack of diversity in the curriculum (western white male canon)… all reinforce each other. Fundamental drastic changes are needed to break this cycle. Thomas’s managing diversity approach—with its culture audit and its focus on long term change in culture and mind-sets—is a compelling strategy for starting this paradigm shift. Anthony outlines examples of the problems with affirmative action, such as backlash and false sense of fixing the real problems (“presto”). I nonetheless believe that the long-term multi-year culture change process of should be complimented by the speed of immediate actions, such as the recent Black Cluster Hire of five full-time Black faculty in Design at OCADU.

  4. Ke Yan Ye says:

    Thank you Olivera and Zoe for your contributions to this week’s discussion on racism in the architectural profession.

    It is still striking for me that even 50 years after the civil rights era, the lack of diversity in the profession of architecture is still so obvious. As exposed in the Wilkins and Anthony readings, managing diversity in the profession is about setting a long-term goal and not with occasional small-term gains. While initiatives like exit interviews, public outreach and a diversity plan in the hiring process are essential to promoting diversity in design, the ones that resonated the most with me are those who tackle the issue starting from the education level. I think the lack of diversity in the very product of the learning process of a student such as an architecture rendering demonstrate the effects of underrepresentation of women faculty and faculty of color that can bring diversity in teaching methods, ideologies and cultural references. Finally, cultivating diversity from the very start of our education is critical because as architects, the core of our profession is not about problem-solving skills but in the ability of being able to understand our clients as best as we can and help them reach their highest aspirations.

  5. Jugal Patel says:

    Can ham sandwiches be diversified? What to add? Or do you restart with a fresh recipe?

    In general, I agree with much of what Neskovic says in this essay:

    i) pointing out that architecture wasn’t on the shortlist of prioritized professions for indigenous communities seeking representation;

    ii) that ‘the general response of architecture within North America following these movements has been great at producing pithy statements and anti-racist manifestos, but this has continuously failed to tackle diversity in a tangible way’; and

    iii) that the recommendations Anthony provides are good as they are based on materially changing labour conditions in architecture (work hours, part-time positions, etc.).

    What’s interesting to me in Figure 1 of Anthony’s article is what might explain the displayed variation: who do we let in as representation of out-groups? Who decides how a group is represented? In my field people argue about whether or not representation is (or leads to) empowerment. While I’m not sure about where I stand, I do think it’s important to consider who diversity is serving – is it really the communities we aim to empower by ascribing (architectural?) agency.

  6. Christopher Clarke says:

    Thanks so much for the great presentation and discussion facilitation today Olivera!

    Diversity in any pursuit enriches it immensely, and that is especially true in a creative profession such as architecture. People of different cultures and genders think differently and that diversity in thinking propagates an abundance of architectural forms. However, as an Indigenous architect, it is blatantly apparent that the architectural profession is just a plain old ham sandwich (Anthony, 2002).

    This was immediately observable upon my entry into studio on my first day of architecture school. In fact, I don’t recall if there were any other students who were not white, save myself. Furthermore, women professors were scarce, and only one of the two appeared to possibly be tenured. The faculty was definitely too male, and too pale (Anthony, 2002).

    I am the tenth Indigenous architect in Canada, and within the past nine years, ten more have registered. Our numbers are so few that I know personally ever Indigenous architect in Zoe Goodman’s presentation, as well as the rest. Thus, it is imperative that the profession actively ensures that the number of Indigenous people, as well as other people of colour, become architects. Although many programs can be implemented to promote the profession to non-white individuals, it must go well beyond the HBCU (historically black colleges and universities) model in the United States (Wilkins, 2012).

    Indigenous people are severely underrepresented in all professions in Canada. Although programs such as those similar to the HBCU of the US could help, much more is required. It also goes far deeper, and beyond the scope of any one profession; and begins with treatment of intergenerational trauma from a multitude of factors, including residential schools.

    Consequently, Indigenous youth up to today all too often feel they are not good enough or deserving of their aspirations; a mentality that stems from our constant exposure to racism throughout our colonial history. Active recruiting by the profession of architecture at all levels by professional organisations and universities, from primary to high school, would be a major step forward. Funding for mentors is also critical. However, until we understand that we as Indigenous people are deserving in the pursuit of our dreams, we will never come close our relative representation in the discipline of architecture.

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