Racism in the Architectural Profession, by Zoe Goodman

October 2, 2020

[Reading List]

The State of the Architectural Profession and Race: The Profession Will Not Change until the Education System Changes

The architectural education system and profession in North America are based on white culture and fail to provide a supportive environment for Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) students and professionals. This perpetuates a long history of struggles for BIPOC students and professionals to thrive in a white man’s world.  As stated by late Ernest Boyer and Lee Mitgang quoted by Kathryn H. Anthony and Craig L. Wilkins: “After the dawn of the civil rights era, architecture remains among the less successful professions in diversifying its ranks—trailing, for example, such formerly male‑dominated fields as business, computer science, accounting, law, pharmacology and medicine.”1

In his essay “Race and Diversity,” Wilkins explains the lack of opportunity for African Americans in the architectural education system in the United States as being “based upon a kind of universality of cultural expression representing mainly that of the predominant white American culture.”2 He explains a long history of inequity in architectural education that has yet to be solved today. In fact, despite being written ten years later, Wilkins’ essay reiterates many of the same issues highlighted by Anthony in her 2002 article “Designing for Diversity”. This demonstrates the slow pace of change when it comes to eliminating racism from the architectural education system and profession.

Anthony spends less time reviewing the history of inequality and instead uses real-life examples to take a closer look at the lack of diversity in American architecture schools.3 While Wilkins ends his essay hopelessly, stating that African American architecture faculty will continue to “make a way out of no way.”4 Anthony provides some concrete methods to address the issue. According to Anthony, the architectural profession will not change until architecture education changes. She argues that strategies need to be adopted in school and practice to promote lasting change, focusing on both condemning “incidents of discrimination, harassment and unfair treatment” and implementing strategies to support underrepresented educators and students. Anthony calls for hiring a diverse faculty to promote and reward underrepresented students and faculty with support systems, networking opportunities and showcases of the work of BIPOC faculty.5

Wilkins praises Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) for training African American architects who went on to effectively disprove the widely held notion that African Americans did not have the intellectual capacity to become professionals.6 He also praises many notable practitioner-educators who set the standard for future black educators. However, it would have been beneficial to dig deeper by giving specific examples of how HBCUs or practitioner-educators have paved the way for today’s African American architects.7 Anthony provides statistics and shares experiences of the individual, a perspective that would have given greater depth to Wilkin’s arguments. However, Anthony arguably focuses too much on the struggles she faces as a white woman rather than those of the minority groups who are even less privileged than she is.

Current Events

The cyclical nature of the problem is evident in both texts, and it is apparent that the issues still resonate today. While there has been some improvement, many of the issues described in Anthony’s essay (written in 2002) remain to be fully addressed. Research into Black, Asian and minority ethnic architects reveals that racism in the profession is getting worse and not better, as published in The Architect’s Journal when 43 percent of Black respondents said racism was “widely prevalent” compared with 30 percent in 2018.8

Wilkins notes how the civil disturbances in the 1950s and 1960s brought to light issues that faced African Americans resulting in a nationwide effort to address systemic inequalities under President Lyndon B. Johnson. Top architecture schools in America recognized the problem and began to admit more African American students.This was an improvement; however, African Americans are still underrepresented in architecture schools and practice 60 years later.

The death of George Floyd and subsequent outpouring of grief, anger, and determination to bring real change could prove to be another pivotal moment in race relations in our society and within the architectural profession. According to the New York Times, the movement may have been the largest in United States history.10 However, we already see a deceleration in momentum. There are fewer front-page headlines and fewer conversations with friends, family, and acquaintances. Are we already going back to our pre-George Floyd ways? How can we break this never-ending cycle of inequity in the architectural profession?  The movement has inspired architecture students and professionals to look at the systemic racism that still exists today. For example, in universities across Canada including the University of British Columbia, the University of Toronto, Ryerson and Dalhousie, open letters written by students addressed schools of architecture demanding change. Additionally, we can now find articles in architectural magazines and groups at architecture schools such as the Race | Space reading group at McGill or the Racial Equity and Environmental Justice Task Force at the University of Waterloo, which address the lack of diversity in architecture.11 Only time will tell if this momentum will endure.

There is a lack of information on race and diversity in the architectural profession within the United States. There is an even more significant lack of information coming from Canada, signaling that Canada also has a long way to go. In the September 2020 issue of Canadian Architect, nehiyaw architect Wanda Della Costa describes her struggles as a Canadian Indigenous architect. She expresses her frustration with “colonial processes,” stating that “indigenous ideas do not have a place in the current system.”12 Wilkins also expresses concerns with the entire American architecture school system being dominated by white culture.13

Next Steps

To make lasting improvements within the architectural profession, systemic changes need to be made. Wilkins reflects: “The small number of African Americans on architecture faculties today is indicative not of the pool of talent available but rather of the market and those who control it.”14 Timothy Onyenobi, a member of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA)  Architects for Change Advisory Group, argues architecture schools need to change their entrance policies, learning from professions that are more successful in selecting a diverse range of students.15

Anthony’s ideas of diversity plans and her call for a restructuring of architecture schools seem promising. However, we are not seeing any significant change by the time Wilkins wrote “Race and Diversity,” and we are still hearing from countless BIPOC individuals who feel underrepresented and bullied in the architectural world.  The climate is shifting following the events of this year, and it is critical that this momentum is sustained to finally break the cycle of inequality in the architectural profession.

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1 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

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.

Anthony, “Designing for Diversity,” 257-67.

Wilkins, “Race and Diversity,” 378.

Anthony, “Designing for Diversity,” 262.

Wilkins, “Race and Diversity,” 376.

Ibid, 374-79.

Richard Waite, “Architecture Is Systemically Racist. So What Is the Profession Going to Do about It?,” The Architects’ Journal, August 14, 2020,
https://www.architectsjournal.co.uk/news/architecture-is-systemically-racist-so-what-isthe-profession-going-to-do-about-it

Wilkins, “Race and Diversity,” 377.

10 Larry Buchanan, Quoctrung Bui, and Jugal K. Patel. “Black Lives Matter May Be the Largest Movement in U.S. History,” New York Times, July 3, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/07/03/us/george-floyd-protests-crowd-size.html.

11 “Racial Equity and Environmental Justice Task Force,” Racial Equity and Environmental Justice Task Force | Waterloo Architecture, accessed September 28, 2020, https://www.waconnect.ca/groups/racial-equity-and-environmental-justice-task-force.

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

13 Wilkins, “Race and Diversity,” 374.

14 Ibid, 378.

15 Waite, “Architecture Is Systemically Racist. So What Is the Profession Going to Do about It?”

 

 

 

8 responses to “Racism in the Architectural Profession, by Zoe Goodman”

  1. michellebrais says:

    What I think is worth emphasizing in Anthony’s piece is not only the hardship incurred by people of colour through discriminatory practices and mistreatment, but the extra time, money and physical and emotional toll that come from needing to do extra work to bring up the issues of discrimination in the workplace. BIPOC often have to put in extra time on diversity boards, do extra learning and advocacy work, have to report abuses and pursue lawsuits, and their work has the responsibility to represent a group of diverse people in their culture which is a tremendous weight to bear. In addition to the measures mentioned in the readings, I would emphasize the creation of BIPOC allies in the dominant culture. Non-BIPOC people should carry some of the weight of the fight for equality, which has been proven to have advantages for all groups involved. Beyond sensitivity training and curricula that integrates different practices and points of view in architecture, students and teachers should feel a responsibility to advocate for their peers. Often, the discussions on racism tend to have abusers and victims, which depict white people as villains that should feel guilt. This rhetoric does not do a good job of convincing people to help the cause. The teaching should look at practical ways to increase listening to people from different backgrounds and encourage students and teachers to establish a growth mindset in that no one is perfect or acts perfectly, everyone is here to learn from mistakes past. We need not make people defensive or attacked, we need them to be able to empathize and understand the struggles of others to be able to advocate for equal treatment and take part of the load off of minorities.

  2. Muhammad Awan says:

    Thank you for sharing a great article Zoe. The very first sentence of your article gets to the heart of the problem, in that the architectural education system is so heavily based on such a unilateral cultural expression – that of the predominant white American culture. How, then, can BIPOC students and professionals feel encouraged when there is such a one-dimensional approach to education in the field? In this regard, as you and Olivera mentioned, a holistic approach such as the one outlined by Anthony must be adopted, which involves significantly incorporating the cultural expression of BIPOC communities into the education and experience of architecture students. I also found it highly compelling that you included some empirical evidence from “The Architect’s Journal” in your article – it vividly conveyed that the problem is not in fact getting better, which means that the approaches being tried are not enough, and in other cases no concerted steps have been taken. It is a compelling reminder that it is high time that the education of architects be reformed in order to build diverse perspectives into professional practice from its very foundation.

  3. Christina Mahut says:

    Thank you Zoe and Vera for these readings as well as your essays. I found myself to be surprised by how prominent racism and sexism in architectural education and profession, and yet when I look around McGill, it is clear that the school has not come far from these institutionalized cultural and social realities.
    Wilkins makes an important point: valuing difference and maintaining diversity shouldn’t be one of many things a school puts forward, it just be part of a holistic approach, a long term commitment, and dare I say, a full-time job. This relates back to our earlier reading of Charmaine Nelson’s (and students) report about McGill as a whole: there should be positions specifically focused on maintaining diversity and equity within schools and practices. This dissecting and rebuilding of the educational and academic culture is vital and the role of non-BIPOC people in this change is essential. The design world is one of diversity and creativity, that should be reflective of societies and their diversity.
    Headlines like David Adjaye winning the RIBA Gold Medal are important in fueling these movements forward and should be shared, celebrated and questioned (why is it that he is the first Black Architect to win this award) within educational institutions. The conversations need to be had more widely.

  4. Michael Nugent says:

    Thank you Zoe and Vera for sharing these readings and your thoughtful essays. When first reading Anthony’s piece, struggled to place when it was written, as many of the issues raised about the structure of architectural education and the lack of diversity within its curriculum seems to be the same issues we have been bringing up in recent months/years.

    The discussion around diversity and underrepresentation of BIPOC and female educators and professors posses a difficult issues regarding how patient we can be for change. The numerous studies cited of faculty positions from the 1990s showed a horrendous lack of diversity within tenured and senior leadership positions within architecture schools, but we also have to consider that the individuals in those roles would have begun their architectural education within the 1960-70s. A period in which the diversity of incoming students would have been far worse. While I’m not saying that lack of diversity is not a problem, its a massive systemic problem and still has a long way to go, it is slowly changing and over the past half century architecture schools have increasingly become more diverse. However, given the 2-3 decades of education and professional experience required to achieve ‘success’ and recognition, we are only now seeing the appreciation and celebration of the diverse individuals from the generation who began their studies during the period in which the studies Anthony’s cites were conducted. The unfortunate reality is it takes decades to see the impact of outreach and support for BIPOC, female, and other underrepresented individuals.

    Right now we are in a moment where systemic racism, sexism, and marginalization, has hit a boiling point and there is a demand for immediate action. But unfortunately, that often comes down to the visible impression/representation of diversity. My concern is that if institutions make a knee jerk reaction to ‘quickly’ address a lack of diversity, then it is just tokenism. In which we are simply reducing diverse individuals down to their appearance, and dismissing non-visual forms of diversity such as sexual orientation, gender identity, or religious beliefs. As Michelle said, not only do we need to promote a inclusionary mindset and BIPOC-allies, we also need to find ways to outwardly express that inclusion and ingrain it into the culture of architectural education while we wait continue to work towards, and await the maturation, of a more diverse architectural profession.

  5. Jugal Patel says:

    Architecture, like my field – geography, I cannot help but feel is borne out of privilege (and not material necessity). As such I sometimes worry about how illiberal ideas can be indirectly supported by liberal rhetoric – often with professionals like ourselves as key voice boxes. If your field is like mine, our education systems portray and are based on ‘white’ culture due to underlying notions of cultural superiority.

    Goodman in the above essay, contrasts Wilkins and Anthony’s hopefulness in their conclusions. ‘While Wilkins ends his essay hopelessly…’ ‘Anthony provides concrete methods to address the issue’. Anthony’s realism is appropriately optimistic, as she notes: The HBCUs are the best example of education systems enabling real change in broader society.

    Accepting the instrumental role of education systems, and incorporating my opening point on how we sometimes unintentionally serve as illiberal voices: what key things would an architectural program need to consider when advertising for diversifying faculty?

  6. Tara Selvaraj says:

    Thank you, Olivera and Zoe. A really good point Laura brought up in our discussion today touched on our responsibility as students, and future practicing architects, or academics. We have a responsibility to choose the precedents we use, the authors whose work we read, and the professionals we work with. The accountability isn’t solely on academia or professional practice. Another good point raised was the importance of discussing and differentiating what we mean when we talk about ‘diversity’; whether it is visible racial diversity or ‘cultural fit’. While we might not need to target a more visible racial group, perhaps our diversity would increase if we took into account and kept an open mind to a range of perspectives and cultural ideas beyond our own. Hopefully, office culture and studio culture can and is evolving to suit a broader range of cultural ideas. And it’s important to keep in mind we all play a role in this.

  7. Rachel Law says:

    It is perhaps important to note that both authors, Anthony and Wilkins, are scholars and academics. Of course, the focus on diversifying the profession would turn to diversity efforts in the “training of an architect” – education at institutions.
    While we can talk about the culture within institutions that continue to perpetuate marginalization due to racism, what draws my attention is how one is exposed to architecture as a viable profession in the first place.
    To echo Jugal’s comment, architecture is inherently a privileged profession. This elitism has been ingrained in what Anthony calls the “mister-master-mystery” phenomenon, and the hierarchical master-apprentice traditions. Antony quotes Harry G. Robinson III, a professor at Howard University, who echoes the insular nature of the profession and ultimately poses the question: Who is architecture serving? And who is represented?
    The role of an architect must shift from an elitist icon to one that is widely seen as pillars of their communities through their work in the built environment. Of course, our architectural education must support this reconnection with “the social conscious and humanist attitudes” through its pedagogy and provide opportunities for individuals of different communities to access this knowledge. Most importantly, architects must be open and accessible to the public, and be actively present within their communities.

  8. Genna Kalvaitis says:

    Thank you Vera and Zoe for cultivating such great discussion on a very important topic. Architectural education and the architectural profession have certainly been imbued with an egotistical sense of power and greatness. The subsequent image of an architect that belongs in these spaces and is welcome to take up this power and greatness is incredibly narrow. Straight, ego driven, artist, white men fall perfectly into this mold and the cycle continues. They are what the world expects when we say ‘architect’ and therefore they show up to the party. Much of what is valued in the architectural profession is then centered around this perspective and their ways of designing.

    I see the architectural landscape changing as more women and people of colour study architecture and enter the field. However, what I do not see are the standards, expectations, curriculum, leadership, values of the field changing. While more people are supposedly invited to the party and are working against many challenges to be there, the systems in place are not reflecting the social change that people are demanding. As Anthony points out, many “gendered practices occur in architectural education, especially in design studios and juries”. Things as simple and fundamental as expected ways of presenting and speaking about ones design all feel catered to a certain narrow approach to design. The breadth of work students are taught to look up to, the urban settings we study, the perspectives that are discussed are all so limited and incomplete. It was incredibly disorienting finding vast new resources and entirely different cultural perspectives on architecture and design outside of my education. How had this not been discussed? Why was this not considered important? What was left out of my education taught me so much.

    In the end I am realizing it is completely up to us as practitioners of architecture and design to demand more of our profession. To open it up and seek out a wider range of perspectives and hold space for those among our ranks who have been here the whole time and been skipped over. The more we push the boundaries of what it means to be an architect, of who gets to be an architect, the more meaning and positive impact this profession can have on our world.

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