According to the mayor of London, the absence of black-led practices on the Southwark’s architecture framework is unacceptable. But Southwark councillors Leo Pollak and Johnson Situ say diversity can be hard to achieve – and insist the borough is trying
The AJ and other architecture publications have in recent days run critical commentaries on the overwhelming white and middle class make-up of the architecture profession, rightly homing in on the numerous factors behind the structural and institutional barriers that hold back the cultural diversity of the profession.
These range from the barrier of the long and expensive training, exclusionary language, slow efforts to decolonise the Euro-centric curriculums in many design schools, through to the unconscious biases and aesthetic prejudices that many gatekeepers bring to selection interviews, not to mention an embarrassing and antiquated ‘old boys’ culture that still persists in many parts of the industry. For a profession that prides itself on the moral responsibilities of building environments for good living and shaping human experience the breadth of experiences of its common practitioners is often startlingly narrow.
Much of our experience in Southwark has been instructive – the dynamism and excitement of Southwark’s new homes programme is partly attributable to the diversity of our officer workforce, the influence of our diverse resident steering groups, and the ethos of Southwark residents and community groups pulling together to build a better and more just society in our borough.
This is characterised by the expansion of our council housebuilding ambitions to meet the housing needs of our residents, moving towards a generational target of 11,000 by carving out opportunities on over 100 new sites, including new types of sites where the architectural challenges need designers to be drawing upon the broadest set of references.
Further, for a borough made up of more than 45 per cent BAME residents, we are eager to ensure that the work of our flagship housebuilding programme is carried out by a mix of people who reflect the borough they’re operating in; and that design is not an elite pursuit and the authorship over the built environment is rightly seen as a collective endeavour.
In Southwark, we take great pride that 54 per cent of the officers working on our New Homes team are of BAME backgrounds, and 72 per cent are female. We also give significant influence to resident steering groups for each project, drawn from representative backgrounds of the community affected by the development, with many such groups taking an active role in architect selection as well as giving sign-off of each design stage up to planning.
With this ethos in mind, we set up a new architects framework in partnership with the London Housing Consortium to consciously bring in a new variety of skills and perspectives, holding several open webinars with architects to help shape the criteria, the removal of onerous turnover and insurance thresholds that so often exclude the most talented and idealistic designers, and even allowed for forward evaluation for more inexperienced practices (eg competition entries, and even student work). This was followed by a blind evaluation process of the 365 practices that applied carried out by a 21-strong panel comprised of 12 BAME members and 12 women.
While we succeeded in creating arguably the most dynamic new pool of designers seen in many years, including 20 new practices who had never won a public sector contract nor appeared on a framework before, the numbers of practices led by black, Asian and other ethnic minority background architects remained frustratingly low (even if higher than on comparable frameworks), and many people rightly drew attention to this.
In spite of architects from all walks of life working on our council housing schemes, and a number of black architects who have worked on council housing projects, we know that our design pool still too far reflects the wider systemic issues in the profession that limit the cultural diversity of its practitioners.
We know we don’t have all the answers
In Southwark, we have put our minds to being part of the solution, and are using the competition criteria for how we call off from the framework to include significant weighting on project team diversity, and opportunities for bringing in new voices through subcontracting and collaboration on larger projects.
We have also called on the architects awarded on our framework to make serious efforts to reflect this in their mentoring and internship programmes, their recruitment policies and Part 3 placement arrangements.
We will also be launching a new ‘Southwark Dare to Design’ initiative over the coming months, targeting Southwark teenagers from under-represented backgrounds to gain exposure to and routes into the architecture profession. This will include a new series of study tours and model-making workshops, talks throughout Southwark schools, new mentoring and internship programmes with our partner practices, and a sketch competition based around Southwark’s particular design challenges (rooftop building, democratising the river, redesigning our streets in the climate, burial capacity, and more), with sums available for kit and places on London design summer schools.
We know we don’t have all the answers and, as part of our Southwark Stands Together work, led by councillor Johnson Situ, will be listening intently to understand better the mechanics of discrimination in the architectural profession and other sectors, which will then lead to recommendations.
We hope that any readers who have advice on how councils and design clients can help promote greater diversity in the architecture profession will act on their better instincts and contact us with ideas, and join these efforts.
Leo Pollak is Southwark’s cabinet member for social regeneration, great estates and new council homes
Johnson Situ is Southwark’s cabinet member for growth, development and planning