Towards the end of last year I, along with three other members of Rara, gave a talk on the subject of ‘Making a Living’.
Following our talk, which had focused on diverse ways of making a living from our practice as architects, one of the first questions I was asked was about another form of diversity – the cultural issue of Race.
How had I found being a Black architect? I was asked by a student, also black and female. Well, I had to concede that at my last job I was initially the only black female architect in the practice – a practice of 1000 architects. ‘Me too’, she remarked ‘I am the only one’ Why should that so often be the case?
I have, for much of my career tried not to let the issue of race be a dominant one. After identity all is a multi-layered thing and not merely a question of race. I have had little time for what Anthony Kwame Apia, in this year’s Reith Lectures, called ‘racial fixation’. I suppose my resistance to classification was and is because I always hope that the issue of race will dissolve, become unimportant and that I will be seen as the sum several parts, of which colour is only one. Yes, I am black but I am also, female, British, a Londoner via Wiltshire, South Shields and West Africa and an architect. I have always wanted to believe I would simply be judged according to my work. This is despite being told by a well-meaning lecturer, whom I respect hugely, that my surname would make getting a job harder for me. It was said, not to discourage but to remind and prepare me for the fact that I would have to work harder, be better. I have managed to train at good schools and work in leading practices, so clearly race has not been a complete hindrance. Though to what extent people are influenced in their management decisions by race, one can never know. However as I have progressed in my career I have met fewer and fewer black and ethnic minorities, there is what one might term a gradual bleaching out of the profession as one moves up the ranks and markedly in the transition from Parts I – III and so now, I do feel that the issue of the lack of diversity in one that must be addressed.
I do not think it a coincidence that I was posed this question after giving a talk about diverse modes of practice. I suggest there may be a link between cultural diversity and the search for diversity of practice – that is to say perhaps being an architect from an atypical background has lead me to think about practice in a diverse way. Just as, I would argue, the politics and practicalities of gender mean that women often become sole practitioners in order to create the flexibility to enable them incorporate childcare into their working lives. Architects from diverse backgrounds may find themselves needing to create and exploit diverse models of practice in order to thrive as architects. In short, though it should not be the case, perhaps both women and BME architects are faced with needing to re-define their modes of practice in order to thrive in their profession of choice.
It was not until I started working at the afore mentioned large, world renowned, practice that I was forced to become pointedly aware of the lack of diversity in the profession; the environment was highly multinational however despite this, when I started there I was the only black female architect, and one of maybe two or three black architects. This was in a 1000 strong, international, architecture practice. However, I was soon joined by one other black female architect, and we, predictably, became friends and a sort of support network for each other.
In retrospect I should not have been surprised, as at the time, according to a survey published by the AJ, only 1.2% of UK architects were black and comparing the figures with census data In 2011, one can see that only 0.9% of UK architects were black or black, British compared with 3.01 % in the general population. So the fact that in this particular practice, at that time, the figure was closer to 0.4% should not have been such a shock.
The reasons for the dearth of black architects is complex, there is no single causal factor, no centralised attempt to keep non whites out of the profession but perhaps there is too little focus on getting young architects from ethnic minorities into the profession and then keeping us there once qualified.
I have no doubt that the over–riding factor keeping many black prospective students from choosing architecture as a field of study is money, but I suspect it may also be cultural. The profession is still often considered the domain of the white, middle class man. So, I am not sure that many black and ethnic minority children grow up thinking that architecture is not a possibility for them.
In my case, when I was at school, though I had some wonderful teachers, architecture was never a profession that was mentioned as a possibility. I went to an all girls school, so this my well have also been an issue of gender. For me, unusually, I suppose, the impetuous to study architecture came from a father, himself a talented, draftsperson, photographer and master of watercolour, who was passionate about it, himself a chartered surveyor, he had started teaching me to draw when I showed an interest, bringing home teach-yourself-to-draw books from the local library at around the age of eight; he took me to see the Lloyds building on my 18th birthday. Had it not been for him, there is no way that I would have found my way into the profession of architecture and if not for my family, I would not have been able to sustain studying on a long and expensive course or working in an underpaid profession with a persistent and pervasive long hours culture.
Not all are as fortunate as I have been and I believe that the profession, the bodies govern it, those of us who are part of it and educationalists do have a duty of care, which extends to ensuring diversity within our ranks. Of course it is not all bad, there are shining examples like the soon to be knighted David Adjaye, and the Stephen Lawrence Trust , who do wonderful work, creating opportunities for young disadvantaged people. However it may also be that black and ethnic minority architects need to be more active in disrupting the status quo and thinking creatively about how we can re-shape our profession.