Architecture students are addressing key issues of social justice in their work – and the profession can learn from them, says Emily Booth
Things are getting worse, not better. These are the sobering findings from the AJ’s most recent race diversity survey, run in partnership with the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust. Two years on from our first survey in 2018, the percentage of those from a black, Asian or minority ethnic background who think racism is ‘widespread’ in the architecture profession has leapt from 23 per cent to 33 per cent this year. Of black respondents, 43 per cent say racism is ‘widely prevalent’, compared with 30 per cent two years ago.
Other data shows similarly concerning numbers. The ARB’s 2019 annual report gives ‘an indication’ that just 1 per cent of architects are black and that the proportion of white British architects increased from 79 per cent in 2018 to 84 per cent in 2019. Among the majority of AJ100 practices, BAME architects remain significantly under-represented.
But perhaps it is the statements from BAME respondents to the AJ survey that resonate the most. ‘We don’t want preferential treatment; just stop shutting the doors on us and let us do our job.’ ‘This isn’t just a BAME problem to fix. White people have to be in the room and held accountable.’ ‘Language is at the lower end of racism and can be easily averted. I have seen racist actions where things are not necessarily said but are obviously a result of race.’
Something is going badly wrong, and it’s going wrong at all stages of the architecture profession, including the critically important education phase when students take their first steps into the industry. As a profession, facing up to these issues is one thing; taking practical, willing steps to real change is quite another. (Journalism shares many of the same issues as architecture in terms of a lack of diversity, and the AJ is no exception. We have much to do.)
In this time of challenge and protest, Black Lives Matter is a galvanising force. It has created a momentum which architecture should embrace. But it is important that this energy and awareness is not short-lived. Systemic change takes regular, consistent, positive action. It can mean sometimes having uncomfortable conversations and addressing uncomfortable truths. It requires commitment.
With that in mind, we’ve spoken with industry experts and commentators who have provided clear actions the profession – and, in the case of procurement, the wider sector – can take to drive diversity.
These include: in education, reducing subjectivity in the way entry exams and interviews are conducted; in practice, offering shadowing, training and internships for people from diverse backgrounds so candidates are ready to apply and succeed; and in procurement, a requirement for partnerships or consortia between well-represented suppliers and smaller under-represented suppliers who reflect community and context. See the full action plan here.
As we celebrate the creativity and success of this year’s architecture students, who are taking steps into an uncertain but – hopefully – more aware world, architecture needs to support and nurture their diverse talents. These students and graduates are already addressing key issues of social justice and equality through their work: the profession can learn from them.