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Discrimination is still alive and well for minorities in architecture


Should black architects design house extensions? Not according to Elsie Owusu, profiled on page 24, who has just received an OBE for her work with the Society of Black Architects. Owusu shudders at the thought of architects from ethnic minorities wasting their potential.

But back extensions are exactly what they should be doing - as well as leading massive urban schemes abroad as Owusu is doing, and designing schools and hospitals and landmark buildings. In other words, they should play a full role in architecture, which means doing all the mundane stuff as well as the glamorous.

Owusu reckons true cultural diversity in architecture is still a long way off, and the situation for women doesn't look much better. New RIBA president George Ferguson was scarcely optimistic when he said it would take a generation to see women playing a full role in architecture - ironically, in a week when the newspapers were telling us that feminism was dead and outdated.

Neither does architecture seem to be on message when it comes to age discrimination. Just as we have all been told that we are free to work at least until 70, older architects are finding it almost impossible to get PI cover.

Architecture is in a bind. On the one hand, there is a growing awareness that it is not tackling the problems of diversity and opportunity. On the other, it is still, in contrast to the engineering disciplines, oversubscribed.

And the romance, individualism and open-ended opportunities that attract individuals to architecture also act as a discouragement to those from less secure financial backgrounds, without a network of contacts, or concerned about fitting in personal commitments alongside their professional lives. If architecture becomes more businesslike, as many argue it must in order to survive, some of these problems may be solved - but not, it is to be hoped, at the expense of creativity.

Still, something must change if architecture is to reach a state where the only discrimination is the kind that is used as a synonym for good taste.

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