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Diversity doesn't mean variety

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In the second part of our debate, we explore whether diversity will help or hinder the quest for equality in architecture.

While architecture stands accused of 'institutional racism', the only saving grace is that the accusation is hardly unique to architects. Today there is a certain inevitability that the charge will be levelled at each and every mainstream organisation. Hardly a day goes by without a Home Office minister or senior police officer admitting to the endemic 'institutional racism' of their respective organisations and apologising for past misdemeanours.

No defence A devastating critique of the term emerges in a recent book published by CIVITAS, Racist Murder and Pressure Group Politics, which makes a detailed investigation of Sir William MacPherson's report into the murder of Stephen Lawrence in 1993.

The authors show that the inquiry - unable to find any police officer that had committed an overt racist act in any usual sense of conduct, language or attitude - came up with a form of racism that could exist independently of any actual racists and labelled it 'institutional'. In a departure from the usual rules of evidence, 'unw itt ing' , 'ignorant' or 'thought less' behaviour was cited as proof of police racism.

The rise of the charge of 'institutional racism' is in inverse proportion to the level of actual racism. The term does not focus on conscious or overt acts but on what can be inferred from routine behaviour. The character of any given institution is not under attack, but the mindset of the individuals within it. Blame has shifted to everyone. In the rulebook of anti-racism, we are all culpable.

Institutional anti-racism is an argument about values and is both authoritarian and tokenistic: authoritarian in its campaigns to brand, 're-educate' or remove those who act 'inappropriately' - no matter how unwittingly, thoughtlessly or in ignorance; and tokenistic with its focus on inter-personal behaviour, 'mentoring' and 'fronting' organisations with people from ethnic minorities.

Now, it seems, the RIBA has jumped on the bandwagon of institutional racism and wants to purge its ranks of unacceptable behaviour. The RIBA's Architects for Change seeks to challenge the lack of integration of ethnic minorities, as well as women, disabled and minority groups generally, into the profession.

Diverse architecture The implications for architects are enormous - regardless of the fact that as a 'liberal art', architecture hardly has a reputation for racism. But if, as Prince Charles said at his recent Stephen Lawrence memorial lecture, 'consciously or not, buildings and the places that they form stand as reflections of the values of our society', then architects could indeed be 'unwittingly' racist.

The oft-cited 'proof ' is the lack of 'diversity'.The accusation is that architects and architecture do not take enough account of the traditions and communities in which they are situated, and, in Prince Charles's words, ignore 'the inner nature' of people. But, in their defence, architects have often consciously struggled to express much more than the limits of 'place', tradition or function in their work - after all, what else is innovation or experimentation?

The idea that architecture should represent the diversity of the population is an argument about accommodating particularism.

Paradoxically, under the banner of diversity, architecture could become more orthodox and bland rather than richer. A politically correct architecture would reduce the universality and complexity of human interaction into a series of lowest common denominators, that are seen by the great and good to represent the peop le's 'nature' . The proponents of 'd iversity ' often regard the transcendent and experimental as destructive of the individual's sense of 'place'.

Most of us are rational enough to know that a thoughtless act is different from a racist act and that buildings are all the better for the creativity of architects rather than the prejudices of vocal minorities - whether anti-racists or racists. Writing in the Guardian, Faisal Bodi attacked race activists who sought to impose 'an imaginary black and white world view' on the rest of us, saying: 'Most of us would like to believe we are more rounded individuals, living textured, forward- looking lives.'

'The problem, 'writes Russell Jakoby in his new book, The End of Utopia, 'is not a preference for pluralism, but its cult'.

Acknowledging that variety is better than blandness, he challenges the simplistic notion that 'more is better'. Effectively, encouraging more racial minorities to join the ranks of the RIBA will not necessarily do anything to improve the state of British architecture and, more importantly, neither will it necessarily improve the condition of racial minorities or women in Britain. That is the job of politics, not architecture.

Bruno Waterfield is an Internet journalist, brunowaterfield@ePolitix.com


Racist murder and pressure group politics , Norman Dennis, George Erdos and Ahmed Al-Shahi, CIVITAS, 2000 The end of Utopia, politics and culture in an age of apathy , Russell Jacoby, Basic Books, 1999 (US)

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