Opportunities for Equity in Architecture

I wanted to wrap up our informal series on accessibility, authenticity, and equity in the architecture profession with a summary of everything I’ve put out there and how it all ties together.

Architecture is a profession with a lot of steps to it, and I don’t mean the practice of project delivery, which certainly has lots of steps too. I’m talking about the steps involved in going from a young person in primary or secondary education that thinks, “hey, I want to be an architect when I grow up” to actually becoming a licensed professional architect. Every single one of those steps is an opportunity for architecture to open its arms to that young person who dreams of becoming an architect — or not.

Inspire and Welcome a Diverse Group to Become Architects Through Authenticity

We started the series with a look back at my experience with Sekou Cooke’s outstanding exhibit, “Close to the Edge: The Birth of Hip-Hop Architecture.” In the Hip-Hop Architecture movement I saw an ethos that could push architects to become more authentic, which in turn could make our profession more accessible to all sorts of people, including those considering architecture as a career. Embracing Hip-Hop Architecture could also be a way to make design easier to relate to and more engaging for everyone, as I witnessed first hand. The exhibit and what I learned from it where a clear call to action to get real about equity in architecture.

Make the Path to Licensure Much More Accessible

Next, we explored the topics of education, licensure, and continuing education. Making the three experience prerequisites of licensure (education, work, and exam) and the means of maintaining a license more equitable and accessible is key to helping our profession become more diverse. We saw that learning doesn’t have to happen in an expensive, long-winded school experience. There’s also room in the ARE for it to cover the important topics that let candidates show their understanding of the diverse country for which they’ll be designing buildings and spaces. Continuing education is a prime example of how we can rethink what health, safety, and welfare are all about — let’s not lose HSW for buildings, but instead add HSW for people and communities to our CE requirements. All of these topics are opportunities to capture data we can use to monitor our industry’s progress towards equity and accessibility.

Train Our Emerging Professionals Better

How we train architecture professionals, whether it’s their first job or fiftieth (I know that’s a lot, but I bet it applies to someone out there) offers another great opportunity to make architecture more equitable and accessible. There are other industries that combine good training with a welcoming approach to diversity and architecture should draw inspiration from these approaches. Ridding ourselves of toxic attitudes around hiring and training is yet another opportunity to be better and level the playing field for everyone.

Stay Away from Racist Clients

The United States’ prison machine is an instrument of racism and abuse. We reviewed the myriad of reasons why architects keep working on prison design (hint: 💰). We can’t talk about making the world better while our profession continues to make it worse by designing prisons.

Make the Business of Architecture Equitable

There’s plenty of opportunity when it comes to the basic business model that most firms follow. Thinking about opportunities in the business of architecture leads us to look not only at the biz models, but also project delivery methods, and of course compensation. An equitable business is a diverse and fair business for all.

It’s Time to Move

It’s embarrassing that architecture is a profession that’s mostly white and mostly male.

It’s embarrassing that we put colleagues in charge of our educational institutions, businesses, and trade organizations that perpetuate our industry’s lack of diversity by focusing on all the wrong things.

It’s embarrassing that architects are talking about the change we can design into the built world as a part of our country’s efforts to end systemic racism before we resolve the systemic racism in our own profession.

We need to get real about the opportunities that are out there in each step a person takes on the path to becoming an architect. It’s going to be hard because we’re set in our ways, because change is hard, and because we have a lot of other things on our plates too. But all it takes is focus and goals to get there. Let’s make architecture a profession to be proud of not for what we design, but for who we are and what our community of professionals represent.

Accessible and Authentic Architecture is Equitable Architecure

I’ve been delayed in publishing new articles as this past week has kept ALL CAPS HQ in Minneapolis pretty sleepless and occupied trying to keep calm and help neighbors. While our neighborhoods are heavily damaged, even completely gone along some blocks, I’ve been uplifted by how much everyone’s thoughts refuse to turn away from the unjust death of George Floyd that preceded all the destruction.

When I restarted the ALL CAPS blog a few months back, one of the things I wanted to write about was my experience working the “Close to the Edge: The Birth of Hip-Hop Architecture” exhibit organized by AIA Minnesota last year at Springboard for the Arts near downtown St. Paul. This time last year, the exhibit was in full swing, and I’ve been struggling to figure out just how I wanted to write about my experiences.

In the midst of trying to get through some pretty rough nights this week, I saw a tweet from Hip-Hop Architecture practitioner Michael Ford that instantly brought into focus what I needed to write about from my experience with the exhibit…

Michael’s tweet emphasizes an important disconnect and reluctance within the architecture community that even publicly-traded corporations and their CEOs now embrace. My impression is that while architects who focus on social responsibility get some attention here and there, they’re mostly on the periphery of our profession. I don’t need to go into where our focus lies in this article, you can open any architecture magazine and see that.

Our profession’s focus is reflected in how everyone outside of the profession views us. The characterizations people most commonly make about architects tell us everything about how we’re perceived, and we all know these common associations: aloof, flaky, out of touch, artsy and impractical, unaffordable, hard to understand. If you step out of your architect’s shoes (I wanted to make a joke about the kind of shoes here — easy target — but I stopped myself 😆) and honestly assess how our profession comes off to everyone else, especially those in minority and socially-marginalized communities, we’re more often than not distant and disconnected, both in the makeup of our workforce and in a lot of the work we churn out. All of that can be interpreted as being inauthentic, which brings me back around to Hip-Hop Architecture…

“I lost touch with reality,
Now my personality
Is an unwanted commodity”

De La Soul

The hosts of the exhibit, Springboard for the Arts, had acquired their new headquarters, a former Ford dealership, a short time before the “Close to the Edge…” started. They moved in without really adapting the building (in fact, selective demolition for renovations was starting as soon as the exhibit ended). The exhibit took place in old garage at the back of the building, and it was the perfect backdrop.

Key to framing how I think we architects can get back to reality with people outside of our profession were my experiences with people at “Close to the Edge…” which were split into conversations with fellow architecture professionals and conversations with people visiting the exhibit.

I love talking shop with other architects, and I know that our surroundings in this exhibit were a direct inspiration for getting into important conversations about the inequalities of our profession. Over the exhibit’s run, these conversations covered a lot of important topics. But the single conversation that stood out most to me was about how the biased preferences for a certain kind of project manager that a big, repeat client of a firm had negatively influenced the kinds of people that firm hired or promoted when looked at through the lens of diversity. In its pursuit of stable cash flow and growth, an architecture firm is capable of embracing the discriminitory biases of their biggest clients. Architecture firms where this happens are actively contributing to inequality in our society. That’s incredibly fucked up.

The conversations with the non-architect visitors to the exhibit were the highlight of my time working the show. Many of the visitors were younger hip-hop fanatics who heard about what was happening at the old dealership, or even people from the neighborhood who happened upon the exhibit. There’s something disarming about being inside of the service bay of a former Ford dealership and surrounded by hip-hop art, music, and examples of its architecture — it’s not at all aloof, flaky, out of touch, artsy and impractical, unaffordable (the exhibit was free), or hard to understand. For those visitors where I had a chance to ask about their interactions with architects and architecture as a topic, they all said it was a first time experience for them. Despite that lack of experience, these visitors were able to quickly grasp the ideology behind Hip-Hop Architecture and apply it to what they were seeing in the exhibit pieces. This approachability and accessibility to a design movement is a stark contrast to the morass of Euro-centric architectural history that architects are taught in architecture school — not to divide us by differing design movements either — if anything, the historians remind me of battle rappers one-upping each other with more and more obscure knowledge as they argue over Boullée or some shit like that on Twitter, of course history is important. But the approachability through authenticity of Hip-Hop Architecture is incredibly powerful at a time when architecture desperately needs to attract diverse talent to a profession that’s almost all white and is frankly out of touch socially.

It’s Time to Stop Being Studio Gangsters

In hip-hop, studio gangsters are rappers whose lyrics cover topics that they haven’t actually had to live through and deal with in their own lives, they’re inauthentic wannabes who are mocked by the culture. I like how this terminology can apply in a similar way to architects and architecture firms. I wrote those two sentences just a few hours before a prime example of what I’m talking about showed up on Twitter:

That tweet is an obvious example (and AECOM’s marketing person, who probably makes more than most architects ever will, is a hypocritical dumbass for even attempting to go there with this tweet). Architects and architecture firms are studio gangsters in subtler ways too. The example of the firm that embraces a client’s discrimination in pursuit of profit is another way. And when our industry brings up the need for diversity every damn year at every damn conference, but nothing changes, that’s all of us being studio gangsters.

“The architect, selecting the blueprints
To rid the game of nuisance” ~ Guru

While hip-hop culture was created by Blacks and Latinos in the Bronx in the 1970’s, it’s truly a global culture today. The designs and art in “Close to the Edge” represented the work architecture professionals and designers from all over the world, the work of all different races and ethnicities, the work of men and women. This makes the Hip-Hop Architecture movement an ideal starting point for architects to make real change to who we are, to what we create, and to the kinds of clients we choose to work for.

I’ve always advocated for architects to provide services and insights in non-traditional architecture-adjacent ways to show our value. I’ve also advocated for brining a business mindset to our practice as another way to demonstrate our value. I’m still on board with all of that, but the convergence of this past week’s events with my lingering memories of the exhibit brought home that being socially responsible, accessible, and authentic in practice is what needs to go at the top of the list of how we show our value to others.

If we really want to change the diversity of our profession, if we really want to be understood and appreciated by all people outside of our profession, then we need to be accessible and authentic. There’s an accessible and authentic movement out there just waiting for us to learn about, adopt, and practice through actions, not just words. We’ve got work to do.

Michael Ford wrote an outstanding piece for Azure that’s a must-read for all architecture professionals. Michael’s Hip-Hop Architecture Camp is a perfect example of accessibility and authenticity in action. Please support his important efforts with a donation.