Representing our diversity in Architecture

From the neo-gothic skyscrapers of New York, via the of avenues of Paris, to the neon-lit metropolises of Asia, architecture is the creative discipline that leaves the most visible imprint on our daily lives. Whether in the private or in the public realms, the buildings around us can have a powerful effect on our sense of belonging, optimism and opportunity. 

Architecture marks out and represents the communities it embodies. At its best, it can play a pivotal role in franchising people in society. Our diverse societies benefit greatly from an urban landscape that engages them, communicates with them and understands them. 

As architects, we design spaces – we don’t expect them to occur naturally – and fostering a culture of inclusion is no different

.Stephen Drew, Head of Architecture and Design

Buildings are the creations of people and if our architecture is going to effectively represent the diversity of our cities, it is important that the people who create them are representative. 

How do we currently measure up?

So where do the businesses – design practices, developers, investors – that build our cities currently stand on diversity within the profession? 

Although there have been several very high profile BAME and LGBTQ architects who have risen to prominence over the past decade, representation remains low. 

According to Macdonald & Company’s most recent global rewards and attitudes survey, 80% of those in Architecture classed their ethnicity as ‘white'; 13.1% ‘Asian'; 1.7% ‘Black'; 1.7% ‘Mixed; and 2.9% ‘Other'.

As the first black architect to be awarded the RIBA Gold Medal, David Adjaye’s recent comments on the topic has attracted plenty of attention: 

“Architecture, generally, is the last industry to really recognise the issue of white privilege, which is pervasive,’ he said. ‘Other industries have been very good at dealing with it – or better at dealing with it – and I think architecture is now realising its importance to the discipline and to the discourse.”

Steps we can take to promote diversity in Architecture

Much like good architecture, casting light on the topic can have a dramatic effect. For as long as the topic of diversity hides in the shadows, change will be glacial. 

As such, the RIBA Inclusion Charter is to be welcomed by asking architecture firms to:

  • Acknowledge the urgent need for inclusion in the architecture profession and wider construction industry
  • Commit to setting inclusion targets and an EDI action plan for their practice
  • Commit to developing their workplace culture, talent pipeline and ways of working to support inclusion
  • Commit to publicly reporting on progress of their EDI plan – transparency and accountability are vital to drive cultural change
  • Commit to embedding inclusive design in all projects, and contributing to the development of inclusive environments

The charter speaks to David Adjaye’s comment that the profession is entering the discourse in earnest but, as well as speaking about it, diversity must also be actively sought. 

Measures like blind tenders and selection processes can be useful, but passive procedures alone are unlikely to be enough to bring about significant change. 

For example, in one recent initiative in London, Southwark council failed to select a single firm led by a black architect amongst a panel of 110 firms despite the assessment process being blind and more than half of the evaluation panel being BAME. 

This is, without a doubt, a stark indication of the problems faced by the profession, but we shouldn’t be too surprised. As architects, we design spaces – we don’t expect them to occur naturally – and fostering a culture of inclusion is no different. 

Diversity can raise our profession's standards

Architects are not alone in grappling with this topic and almost all parts of society have a way. It’s right that we should ask why it’s taken this long for a black architect to win RIBA’s top prize and it’s appropriate to shine a light on the lack of diversity in public tenders. However, it’s encouraging that the profession has recognised David Adjaye’s incredible talent and I can only hope it’s the start of much greater recognition for minorities in architecture. 

The rewards of a more diverse architecture profession will be felt across society in more useful, more innovative and more beautiful buildings. Raising the standards of inclusion amongst the businesses that design our towns and cities can only lead to more inclusive spaces for all of us. 

Author:

Stephen Drew

Stephen Drew

Stephen is the Head of Architecture and Design at Macdonald & Company and Founder of the Architecture Social with over six years of recruitment experience.

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