Diversity in Design

Breakthroughs and Obstacles: Prescriptions for Change
(originally published in the May 2009 Architectural Record)

By Ted Landsmark

Max Bond, FAIA, the dean of African-American architects, passed away in February. Yet over the span of his distinguished 51-year-long career, the architectural profession has changed little for architects of color. We must do better. We are losing ground in preparing to serve the more diverse clients who will be seeking design services in the future.

Licensed African-American architects have risen from 1 percent 35 years ago, when Bond entered the profession, to about 1.7 percent today, with all architects of color amounting to fewer than 7 percent of those currently in practice. And as the late Steve Kliment, FAIA, stated in AIArchitect, “The number of black students at accredited schools declined between 1991 and 2003, and the number of graduates over that period actually dropped from 214 to 156, or 27 percent.” Kliment also showed that the black faculty in architecture schools dropped from 6.2 percent in 1997 to 5.2 percent in 2003. These are not good portents.

The publication of reports and studies, including the AIA’s own 2005 investigation, have only now produced a major national institutional initiative to diversify the architectural profession. It has taken a half-dozen years for the AIA, NCARB, NAAB, and related organizations to agree on methods of data tracking that will enable us to know who enters and graduates from our schools, and who persists to professional licensure. Lawyers and doctors put such tracking systems in place decades ago. Apparently, neither the abstract rationales nor the specific methods for increasing diversity are compelling enough to have produced significant progress in the design professions.

There are steps forward. In 2008, Marshall Purnell, FAIA, completed a path-breaking year as AIA president, and Phil Freelon, FAIA, was selected as Contract magazine’s designer of the year. This year, six design teams competed for the $500 million National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., and half included outstanding African-American firms. Thirty-four percent of new African-American architects are women, boosting the total to about 230. But at this pace, we would need to triple design school graduates of color within the next five years to achieve another 1 percent increase in licensed professionals by 2020.

Indeed, major challenges persist. Diminished university commitments have weakened about half of the programs at historically black colleges and universities, which have educated 40 percent of all black architects and designers. Nationally, minority design students too often don’t graduate, and don’t become licensed. There is little collaboration with better-integrated disciplines such as engineering, business, law, and construction, where other aspiring professionals could be engaged in design.

Architecture’s business model amplifies homogeneity. Unlike medicine and law, our firms too often don’t hire interns with an intention of employing them for the long term, thus discouraging African-American career aspirants from staying in design.

So what should we do when our national leadership and worldwide client base have shifted more than we have? Will we become a boutique profession out of touch with client needs and the contributions made by a wider range of designers? And will the weak economy re-create early-1990s conditions, which drove talent out of that homogeneous labor pool, creating significant management problems in many firms today?

Kliment’s insightful AIArchitect essay made 25 recommendations for increasing diversity, from publicizing black architects and improving educational outcomes and career planning to confronting residual racism, building patronage, and expanding students’ knowledge of alternate design-related careers.

Schools, publications, and awards also can broadcast the pragmatic functions of architecture to diverse communities. Here, one notes the outstanding community-based work of Architects for Humanity, Public Architecture, Habitat for Humanity, AIAS Freedom by Design, and the Detroit/Mercy, Auburn, Tulane, and University of Arkansas community design centers. Expanding this emphasis would nurture new designers to be as proficient in public service as in the use of technical innovations. Community-based activities also expose impressionable young people to architecture and design as attractive and rewarding professions.

This list goes on. In diversity meetings, we can call less attention to negative narratives and place a greater emphasis on sharing information on successful practices for broadening ethnic representation; we can collaborate across disciplines to develop diversity interventions that work; we can collaborate with schools in urban areas where students and faculty might share resources; we can support the design offerings at charter schools and community colleges serving minority populations.

Perhaps most important, we need to provide sufficient resources for AIA staff to coordinate and publicize best practices in recruitment, promotion, retention, and human-resources management, and we need for our organizations to rigorously support and assess the outcomes of national and local initiatives.

Jazz and hip-hop emerged from communities of color. Expanding these expressive inclinations toward education and practice in spatial design ought not to be a leap, as long as the entire profession is committed to being more inclusive. We need to engage actively with the polyglot society we will be serving in the years to come. If not now, when?

Photos courtesy Stull and Lee (top); Moody Nolan (center); © Frank Oudeman (bottom). For Edward Logue, Stull and Lee designed the Brooklyn mixed-use development Rutland Road with Perkins+Will (top). Moody Nolan–designed Ohio EPA headquarters (middle). Studio SUMO’s duplex for Briton Matthew Leaney is in New York City (bottom)

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