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Not Enough: A Lack of Diversity May Kill Architecture

By Ricardo Chavez (B.Arch candidate) | This essay is a polemical exploration of diversity within the architectural profession. Tracking the career path of a young professional, the author examines the role of educational and professional bodies in promoting diversity within the profession. The argument is simple: without diversity, the architectural profession will die a slow death in the new millennium.


 

The discipline of architecture prides itself on being a vessel for culture, science, and humanity. Yet as a field of practice, architecture faces a dilemma that reaches back to one’s high school years and tracks through the time spent at university and in the work force. That issue is a lack of diversity. According to Design Intelligence, only 1.7 percent of licensed architects are minorities, and even fewer are African American or Hispanic. Critics argue that architecture may be heading toward a point of sterilization due to the lack of innovation and culture that is associated with a homogenous work force.

Throughout its history, the field of architecture has been plagued with the perception that the rank of ‘professional architect’ is reserved for members of the petite bourgeoisie. The avenue toward diversification begins at the earliest stages of education, when most individuals begin their tumultuous relationship with architecture. High schools such as Charter High School for Architecture and Design (CHAD), and the Architectural Foundation of San Francisco’s Build Institute are making contact with high school students early in their education. Chavez 2CHAD and Build both want to address the lack of minorities and diversify architecture. They do this by providing design problems that mix history, science, and math into projects and give students hope to pursue architecture. According to recent studies, forty percent of the students that attended design high schools chose architecture as their major, while the rest continued on into other STEM programs. The relatively high percentage of retention shows that design oriented high schools are increasing minority contribution at the very beginning stages of the professional pipeline. The Director of CHSAD stated that most minorities have a skewed perspective of what architecture contributes to society. Some of these students, while talented, come from troubled homes and often have no perception that architecture exists as a profession. Early access can address many problems of architecture, but students still have to get through University where diversity is an even bigger issue.

Universities often mold what type of architect a student will become, and these environments are not always structured in ways that promote diversity. Steven Lewis, the President of the National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA) believes studio culture is often the place where minorities experience difficulties. Lewis explains that minorities are hit hard by the cold competitive nature of studio culture, and the racial demographics of these environments only complicate matters. Studio Chavez 4culture is known to tackle societal and economic problems at the level of design, and yet they do not always provide room for a diverse solution to these problems. A lack of diversity at the faculty level may contribute to this phenomenon. Mark Robbins, the Dean of Syracuse University School of Architecture states “To be a meaningful institution students of all stirpes should be able to find themselves within the faculty.” This relates back to history and how architecture is perceived as a major for entitled individuals. James Murdock’s article for Diversify talks about role models. Murdock states that diversity and race still matters and casualties at architecture schools around the country are struggling with it. If there is no role model within a system that molds the minds of future architects, how can diversification increase? If one takes the bourgeois perspective as a starting point, than minorities may bring a form of ‘street knowledge’ to higher education that introduces new methods of thinking. How can a posh student who has never suffered in life design a culturally, or economically self-aware project? Looking to those with life experience provides new perspectives, and thus new solutions that their counterparts might not conceive in design. Early education and Higher education are making strides to diversify the field of architecture, yet the main institutional body that needs to rally for this cause is the AIA and the work force.

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Whitney M. Young, Jr. at the White House (c.1964)

Without a proper foundation in architectural education, the dilemmas of diversity ripple across the professional world. There is a call to arms among architects to retain more minorities for the sake of the profession. In the 1968 AIA National Convention, the African American activist Whitney Young delivered Whitney Young, Jr. keynote speech at AIA that called for diversity in the field of architecture; since then there has only been a 2.7% increase in African-American licenses. According to DIVERSE, minority architects are very rare, and the ones that hold management positions at firms are even more so. This is because 80% of the firms in the U.S are owned by white males, which creates a dilemma in acquiring jobs. This is also a problem when acquiring internships. Many students note that it is often their white counterparts–even if these have fewer skills for the marketplace–that are obtaining coveted internship positions. In a research survey conducted by The Guardian over 47% of minorities holding an architecture degree went into other fields after graduation. Many have gone into graphic design, or construction management. The Guardian article also states that demographics in the field tend to repeat previous trends, and if firms are hiring only whites then most minorities are put off. Design Intelligence estimates that by 2042 over 50% of the population will be of non-white descent. Design Intelligence also argues that of those that become minority architects, only 2% of their children seek architecture as field. This is not always a decision made by the young; many minority architects refuse to make their offspring go through the hoops they did in order to be successful. All of this this creates a problem within the field.

The history of architecture is a history of privilege as architects have tried to change the cultural and economic boundaries of a society from a position of the elite. Architectural institutions are struggling to increase diversity among its faculty, and the field is slowly making strides to diversify its ranks. However, given its current culture, change may only come when a big name architect emerges to usher firm change. The United States has not had a Pritzker Prize winner in over 10 years, and very few social minorities are counted among these ranks from any country. Architecture is struggling and if it does not change and diversify like other professional fields, the world may just as well go back to making concrete boxes.

 

Works Cited

Arendt, Paul. “‘Architecture’ a Barrier to Minorities”” Race Issues. The GUardian, 21 July 2005. Web. 13 Nov. 2015.

Murdock, James. “Diversity in Design: The Diversity Pipeline.” Architectural Record. Architectural Record, 09 May 2009. Web. 15 Nov. 2015.

Ogentoyinbo, Lekan. “In Architecture, African-Americans Stuck on Ground Floor in Terms of Numbers.” Diverse. Diverse, 05 Aug. 2013. Web. 15 Nov. 2015.

 

 

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