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Architecture for everyone

This programme, launched by RMJM and the Stephen Lawrence Trust with the AJ, will send six budding architects from socially deprived or black and minority-ethnic backgrounds to Harvard

‘Architecture is largely made up of white, middle-class people,’ says Peter Morrison, chief executive of RMJM. ‘That’s a significant problem to my mind.’

I’m sitting in the spacious boardroom of RMJM’s London headquarters, sipping coffee with the head of one of Britain’s biggest practices. Morrison is discussing the trouble with architecture – mainly that it is still pathetically mono-cultural.

It’s been nearly 20 years since the 1991 census revealed the shocking statistic that only 5 per cent of architects in the UK were from minority ethnic groups. Although an updated survey has not been completed, with nearly half of all UK architects based in London, it is obvious that the cultural make-up within the profession doesn’t match the diversity without. Which is why RMJM and the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust have launched the Architecture for Everyone programme, backed by the AJ and a £1 million support package from RMJM.

Doreen Lawrence founded the trust in 1998 in memory of her son, who wanted to be an architect but was tragically murdered in 1993 at the age of 18. Like the trust, Architecture for Everyone is dedicated to ‘opening up the architectural profession to Britain’s most disadvantaged young people’.

Open to 18-25 year olds from socially deprived or black and minority-ethnic backgrounds, Architecture for Everyone consists of a series of four architecture workshops led by RMJM staff in Birmingham, Liverpool, London and Glasgow. In addition to the workshops, the nationwide ‘Waste of Space’ design competition has been launched, for which the same demographic is invited to submit design proposals to revamp a derelict site in their area.

This May, a shortlist of 12 candidates from the workshops and the competition will be interviewed by a panel including Deyan Sudjic, director of the Design Museum, and designer Wayne Hemingway. The winning six entrants – and this is the best part – will be sent on an all-expenses-paid trip to Harvard University in the USA, to attend a six-week architecture foundation course beginning on 15 June.

When we spoke at the launch of the Waste of Space competition, Lawrence told me that she hopes the programme will make young people more aware of their immediate environment, and empower them to get involved in reshaping their communities. ‘For so long, architects have had it so much their own way,’ she said wryly. ‘Young people didn’t have a voice – they weren’t allowed to take part in the broader discussion of what was going to happen in their area. This is a way of bringing them into the discussion.’

‘Many of them have ideas about what needs to change,’ continued Lawrence, ‘but they don’t know how to put them into practice. I think having RMJM work with the trust will allow young people to get involved.’

And once involved, says Morrison, he hopes the young people who go through this programme will stay involved. ‘The idea is that we do stay in touch with them, they do come and see us, and work for us.’

Morrison claims Architecture for Everyone is a natural extension of RMJM’s ethos, which has 56 different nationalities working within the practice. According to Morrison, diversity at RMJM isn’t about equality or ticking boxes – having staff from diverse backgrounds is an asset. ‘We think it’s hugely important in terms of what we offer to our clients,’ he says. ‘My strong belief is that, to arrive at a design solution, you need to have people who understand the environment.’

‘Lots of the areas that need the most architectural attention are located where large numbers of ethnic minorities live. Council housing is, without a doubt, the biggest design issue in the UK at the moment, with a huge demand for affordable homes.’

‘I spent some time in the Stephen Lawrence Centre, listening to some of these guys,’ adds Morrison, shifting gears. ‘They came up with real issues, real problems, and they get it. This is something that’s interesting to them, because it’s the environment they spend their entire life in.’

I ask Morrison whether he’s concerned about launching this programme during a recession, with architects being made redundant and students struggling to find work, but he waves the question away. ‘Yes, I think it’s tougher,’ he says. ‘But if you’re only prepared to do these things in an upturn, that’s a waste of time. Over a 10 or 15-year cycle, you’re always going to have a period of economic uncertainty. We’re confident this remains a good idea, upturn or downturn.’

As we prepare to leave for the ‘Waste of Space’ photo shoot, Morrison confesses his great admiration for Lawrence and everything she’s accomplished with the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust. ‘She exudes courage and commitment, tenacity and determination,’ he says. ‘These are attributes you’d want to see in any young person, in any architect.’

Waste of space

Competition entrants aged between 18-25 and from socially deprived or black and minority-ethnic backgrounds are invited to submit a design proposal for a nominated waste of space in their area, showing how they would change it. Entrants should consider the use of materials, the site and the development’s impact on the community and the environment. Submissions can include photos, sketches, drawings, maps and up to 60 seconds of video, and must be received by 1 May. Visit www.architectureforeveryone.org.uk for more information.

Architecture for everyone

The Architecture for Everyone programme will kick off in April with a series of workshops in four cities across the UK for 18-25 year olds from socially deprived or black and minority-ethnic backgrounds. The day-long workshops will be run by a team of RMJM architects. Groups of 40 people or less will work on real design problems and compete for the chance to study architecture at Harvard University in the USA this summer.

For more information please visit www.architectureforeveryone.org.uk

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