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We cannot afford to waste this powerful resource

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paul hyett

Imagine that you are black and seeking a career in architecture. Not easy to do if you are white, because you know nothing of the enormous difficulties that constantly frustrate your ambitions - an almost invisible but deeply powerful tide of scepticism, cynicism and mistrust that saps your energy and betrays your hope.

OK, if you can get into an architecture school you may find some sympathy and support, but what of your career opportunities thereafter? A sympathetic white employer may be found (there simply aren't many 'black'-managed offices around), or you can seek refuge in one of the hard-pressed municipalities (albeit that traditional architectural career opportunities are increasingly rare in local authorities).

But the chances are that if you wish to set up your own practice, the doors of patronage and commercial support will be gently, but firmly shut. That is the way in polite, contemporary Britain. It's a classic Catch 22: if you haven't built, you can't build. In this respect patronage is the essential fuel of progress - and patronage is substantially denied to the black community in this white-dominated society.

If you are black this story is all too familiar and cause for deep anxiety. But it should also worry the white community for two reasons: first, equal opportunity, and clear evidence of it, is essential to racial harmony. Second, the ethnic minorities form a large and fast-growing proportion of our community. We simply cannot allow such a powerful resource to be under-utilised. We certainly cannot allow it to lie fallow.

That is why the work of soba (Society of Black Architects), which celebrated its 10th anniversary at the riba last month, is so important. As soba's Chris Nasah said: 'There is a need to recognise and harness the strength, breadth, and depth of talent within this thriving business community.'

The scale of the black community is rarely appreciated. There are more than 30,000 black businesses in the UK - 19,000 in London alone. The richness and diversity of the community is evidenced by the UK Black Links Business Directory (obtainable on 0181 964 9649) which aims to develop and promote relations between 'corporate Britain' and its black community. It is a testimony to the ambitions and vision of that sector of our society.

soba's keynote speaker was Lord McNair, who urged the meeting to realise that in the Third World sustainable planning needs 'black input' if the problems of our Western cities are not to be reproduced 'lock stock and smoking barrel' in the developing world. McNair argues that architecture is 'about people and people need the confidence of involvement in shaping their environment'.

Leonie Milliner, who also addressed the group, outlined initiatives that the riba is taking to increase accessibility for ethnic minorities into our schools of architecture.

The Stephen Lawrence case has done much, albeit through tragic circumstance, to draw attention to the issue of professional accessibility. Others have also been working in this area for long periods: De Montfort University has, under George Henderson's guidance, sought to increase accessibility to its courses for the ethnic minorities. It has also, with the help of course tutor Adam Hardy, established a better understanding of the particular needs of the richly mixed communities in which it is located. The Commonwealth Association of Architects has also had a long-term involvement in the West Indies, and in Africa, developing new schools and validating existing courses.

Luton, a new university with a very high Black and Asian representation among its students, has sought to improve accessibility to all its courses, including architecture.

But while these are worthy endeavours, the work of soba under the able chairmanship of Kwasi Boateng is special because it aims to provide real linkage and support for such lonely efforts. Its mission is to promote the equitable participation of professionals and students from ethnic- minority backgrounds in education and practice. That is something that we should all support.

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