Wake-up call

30 December 2020



Inspired by recent events, such as the tragic death of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement, the architectural industry is making much-needed steps to finally acknowledge and address its diversity problem. Nana Biamah-Ofosu speaks to those striving to bring about radical change within the industry, including Neba Sere and Umi Lovecraft BP, founders of DECOSM, and Tara Gbolade, co-founder of Gbolade Design Studio, and asks how manifesting these desires in the profession can bring tangible changes.


This has been a year not easily forgotten. Covid-19 and the global pandemic may have been the defining events of the year, but 25 May will also be poignantly remembered. It was the day that George Floyd, a black man, was killed on camera in Minneapolis as a police officer knelt on his neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds, leading to his death.

Floyd’s tragic death triggered an international outpouring of rage and anguish. In the US and the UK, public anger and grief brought people to the streets in protest, seeking reform and justice. It also prompted a critical examination of the systemic racism that pervades the everyday experiences of many black and minority ethnic (BAME) people in what felt like a comprehensive appraisal of our personal and professional interactions.

In architecture and the built environment, the significant lack of diversity was already known. While there are no official figures measuring ethnicity specifically from the Architects Registration Board, the profession’s regulator in the UK, a 2019 survey of 62% of registered architects revealed that just 1% identified as black. Perhaps more worrying is the fact that these figures have hardly changed over the last decade.

In the aftermath of Blackout Tuesday – the online social media campaign expressing solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement – many in the architectural profession began to question the industry’s commitment to substantial change, noting that while many practices and industry leaders had expressed support online, few were actively engaged in trying to solve the industry’s lack of diversity.

For Neba Sere and Umi Lovecraft BP, founders of Decolonising Space\ Making – or DECOSM, a research group exploring ideas around decolonising architecture – part of the problem remains the lack of understanding around forms of oppression. “One of the first things we did was to understand how colonialism manifests and, by doing so, formulate a position on the concept of decolonisation,” Sere explains.

Scale of the challenge

The sheer scale of the problem facing the industry was evident at the second of two talks they gave as part of the Architecture Foundation’s 100 Day Studio series this summer. The panel discussion brought together leaders from the profession, as keynote listeners, to hear hard truths about the impact of architecture’s lack of diversity, and offer commitments to tackling such issues.

What transpired revealed the sheer scale of the problem that the industry faces. As Bob Sheil, director of The Bartlett School of Architecture at University College London (UCL), said at the event, “We need to admit failure and how profound that failure has been. It hasn’t been happening somewhere else, it has been happening in the spaces that we occupy.”

“ONE OF THE FIRST THINGS WE DID WAS TO UNDERSTAND HOW COLONIALISM MANIFESTS AND, BY DOING SO, FORMULATE A POSITION ON THE CONCEPT OF DECOLONISATION.”

DECOSM

To rectify these blind spots, Sheil expressed the need to “completely recalibrate how we measure change and success”, pointing out that as an industry, architecture was “obsessed with its successes, yet rarely spoke about its failures”, and that to move forward the profession needed to “draw a line, concede that it had failed and start again”.

For Sheil, the work of starting again and radically tackling architecture’s lack of diversity began before 2020, with the arrival of Michael Arthur in 2013 as the tenth provost and president of UCL, who championed race equality in the 2018 Dean’s pledges. However, 2020 offered a moment of crucial reflection. Sheil acknowledged that the “nebulous and federal organisational structures of universities” mean that they can be slow to act.

In 2018, The Bartlett appointed Kamna Patel as vice-dean of equality, diversity and inclusion, who was to take a “critical anti-racist, feminist approach to augmenting change for greater equality in the university”. Part of this work has centred on looking at the faculty’s recruitment processes and staff training.

This point is reiterated by Sere, who spoke about the possibilities to affect change in the profession through education. Reflecting on her own education, Sere said that while “in university, you can dream and that is powerful if you are able to do that well. That requires your faculty, your tutors, your unit and your course to provide that space for you and, sadly, that does not often happen, and certainly not for everyone.”

Echoing Sheil’s comments about respecting other forms of knowledge and cultural capital, Sere remains hopeful, buoyed by a generation of students “who request more of their education, and demand space to share personal stories that might have influenced their conception of space”. However, it remains the work of educators “to bring the best out in them”, she contends.

Sere also cautions against an overreliance on education to solve the industry’s problems with diversity and inclusion. “We have to address this issue with a collective effort at every step of the way, in education and in practice, and developing new tools within established institutions,” she says. “Everyone needs to do the work.”

For Tara Gbolade, a co-founder and leading practitioner of Gbolade Design Studio, architecture is an industry playing catch-up. Indeed, as Gbolade notes, architecture was trying to catch up long before its cultural awakening in June and July 2020, often failing to spot and reward prolific black and female-led practices. “Just because the industry is suddenly taking notice does not mean that we have not been doing brilliant work and excelling, in spite of all the barriers we face being black, Asian or minority ethnic,” Gbolade says.

The barriers that Gbolade speaks of are many. Firstly, the narrow and prescriptive route to qualification that reduces access to architecture. Then, the BAME attainment gap, in which BAME students of architecture are less likely to graduate with a first-class degree than their white counterparts, despite entering university with similar or better grades. According to RIBA Education statistics from 2018–19, the number of BAME architecture students is significantly reduced at each stage compared with white students.

Having then qualified and, against such odds, set up their own practices, BAME architects are then faced with a procurement system that excludes them. Southwark Council’s recent four-year framework did not include any black-led practices, with only a disproportionately small number of minority ethnic-led practices represented, despite a line-up of 110 companies. When challenged, the local authority took steps to rectify their mistakes. “To a degree, I have to credit local authorities such as Southwark Council,” says Gbolade.

The council has now launched ADS1.1, seeking 20 practices with diverse leadership and employees. While commendable, the question of how such a major oversight could occur still remains, especially in a borough where 45% of its residents identify as black or minority ethnic.

Gbolade also points out that “any change that happens in society always has to be taken. It has never been given.” Perhaps the moment of reflection is happening because black and minority ethnic people are taking and demanding change.

In response to this, more local authorities have followed suit with plans to improve the diversity of their architectural services providers. “Because of this, many larger and more established practices have had to look further and wider than to their usual collaborators,” says Gbolade.

However, as she points out, “this is not because they are altruistic and have suddenly had an awakening, it is because it directly affects the bottom line.” Gbolade, herself a business owner, is sympathetic to business to commerce but also recognises the need for black and minority-led practices to guard against exploitation as large and established practices suddenly rush to diversify the breadth of their collaborators.

Radical change in industry cannot be achieved without cultural change. Much of the discussions had in the summer debated the role of established cultural and professional institutions in the drive towards radical change, with opinion divided on whether or not to engage with them.

Invisible problem visible

For Neba Sere, previously one of the Architecture Foundation’s Young Trustees, it is about bringing young people on board, enabling them “to lead and make decisions within organisations, to be able to talk about topics, address certain issues and bring the views of a different generation forward.”

On the other hand, Gbolade takes a multi-pronged approach to this through her work as a committee member for the Paradigm Network, a professional network for architects seeking to increase black and Asian representation within the built environment. The first seeks to create a supportive network for black and Asian-led architectural practices, architects, students and other built environment professionals.

The second aim is to collaborate with organisations and institutions based on their values and culture. Paradigm’s recent focus, for instance, is to work with the Greater London Authority to create an expansive and evolving database for black and Asianled practices in London.

The events of 2020 have brought us closer to seeing the radical overhaul needed within the profession to make meaningful diversity and inclusivity progress. For Sheil, it was a breaking point. “I had always assumed, like many, that I was on the right side of history,” he said. “I thought I knew something about racial inequality and knew enough to understand it, to realise that it is a problem, to realise things need to change. But this summer recalibrated that for me. I realised I had not come close to really understanding the scale of the issue. We need to work much harder at understanding what we don’t know.”

Part of finding a solution, Sheil said, involves addressing issues beyond accessibility and affordability of architecture education. “There are a lot of black students who can easily afford to go to university three times over, and yet they are not choosing to apply to architecture,” he explained. “So, we have to address the cultural mindset of why the subject has become so associated with whiteness.” Sheil also stresses the importance for students to see like-minded role models. “Over the last six weeks, I’ve been reaching out to The Bartlett’s high-achieving alumni from ethnically diverse backgrounds,” he said. “Quite frankly, we hadn’t celebrated [them] enough and [we’re] starting the process of getting our current students to interview them, then publicly sharing these conversations on our website.”

Likewise, Gbolade stresses the importance of remembering that these issues existed long before this year. “I’m not going to offer anything profound; it is quite basic,” she said. “The profession needs to get on with implementing the many recommendations already given. Change comes only if we take it, and I think the profession needs to level up.”

For now, the overarching question for the architectural community is how to manifest these desires into tangible change. Answering this question seems a fitting way to honour the death of George Floyd and, ultimately, create a better, more diverse and inclusive profession.

“ANY CHANGE THAT HAPPENS IN SOCIETY ALWAYS HAS TO BE TAKEN. IT HAS NEVER BEEN GIVEN.”

Tara Gbolade, Gbolade Design Studio

Neba Sere and Umi Lovecraft BP founders of DECOSM.
Tara Gbolade of Gbolade Design Studio, her own business.
Bob Sheil, director of The Bartlett.


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