We should begin by encouraging school children to feel they can participate in architecture and design, writes Catherine Slessor
‘I’ve never been taught by or taught with another black person,’ says Joseph Henry, a senior project officer at the Greater London Authority. ‘I’ve never worked with a black person in six years of practice or had a black client.’
For architects of a black and minority ethnic (BAME) background, who constitute a mere 6 per cent of the UK profession, this is a depressingly familiar litany. The milieu of British architecture – whether it be designers, clients or educators – is still almost exclusively white, despite 14 per cent of the national population being of BAME origins. Though these statistics are acknowledged by bodies such as the RIBA, change is painfully slow in a profession notorious for its long and costly training period, exacerbated by a culture of nepotism, casual racism and the under-representation of ethnic minorities.
Henry is one contributor to Architecture for All, a new short film just launched by London’s Architecture Foundation (AF) exploring issues around diversity. Neil Pinder, a design and technology tutor at Graveney School in south-west London, who originally taught Henry and galvanised him and others into studying architecture, leads the discussion of how the profession can become more diverse.
It begins by encouraging school-age pupils to feel they can participate in architecture and design. Access to creative subjects is crucial, but there is an increasing emphasis on a more rigorously ‘academic’ core curriculum, which dictates teaching and evaluation priorities. ‘All students should learn about their environment,’ says Pinder, ‘but not enough emphasis is put on creative subjects in the current structure.’ He notes that the number of pupils who sat GCSE exams in design and technology fell by 10 per cent last year. He is concerned that this will fall further, and BAME students could be the most affected.
‘Society will be diminished if we are only recruiting from the top tier of our educational system into the creative industries,’ says journalist Fiona Millar, another of the film’s contributors. ‘Yet if state schools lack the resources to teach art or design and are not incentivised to do them by existing performance measures, then they are going to disappear. We need new accountability structures that include a broader range of success criteria, so that excelling in art, music or drama is not seen as a lesser achievement.’ Taking this into the field, the AF’s film will be accompanied by architecture workshops for 80 pupils from communities under-represented in the profession.
Society will be diminished if we are only recruiting from the top tier of our educational system into the creative industries
Clearly, increasing representation is important, but ‘there’s a risk that diversity becomes a box-ticking exercise, inclusiveness for its own sake,’ says Adrian Lahoud, dean of the RCA’s school of architecture. ‘Ultimately I don’t think that’s interesting. At present there’s a machine that shapes and dictates the built environment and determines architectural education. Is the victory to be let into that machine or to change it, to get the machine to do different things? It should be emancipatory and transformational, rather than just allowing people to participate.’
The AF also supports the New Architecture Writers (NAW) initiative, in which a group of BAME students is being inducted into the techniques and tactics required for a career in writing about architecture and design. This tilt at another almost exclusively white establishment aims to expand the repertoire of commentators and critics by inculcating the skills and confidence in an emerging generation who do not see themselves currently represented in the discourse around architecture. NAW is a free programme and treads new ground, with building visits, seminars, writing assignments and mentoring from leading industry figures. Building on this experience, its first cohort of students is now in the process of devising their own magazine. Though it may be easy to dismiss such initiatives as minor moves in the wider scheme of architecture’s stubbornly rooted culture of complacency and condescension, the fuse is lit. Expect fireworks.