How can race have an impact on the architectural language around us?

After watching the television adaptation of Malorie Blackman’s Noughts + Crosses, I could not stop thinking about how the prominence of ‘black’ culture was portrayed throughout the series, especially through architecture. In a fiction in which race reversal is at the heart of this slightly dystopian storyline, it was intriguing to see how much influence race has on the design world around us in reality. In light of this, I think it’s important to raise my concerns on how the architectural industry in the UK is limiting itself from creating a racially diverse architectural language.

 A screenshot from the television adaption of Malorie Blackman’s Noughts + Crosses.

Being a black woman alone comes with multiple barriers, whether from education, a professional practice, or everyday life. When I applied to study architecture, it almost felt uncommon for someone who looked like me to partake in the degree, let alone for a black woman to complete the entire course and claim the title. I believe that this state of being an ‘anomaly’ is a common feeling within the ethnic minority community in this field. The pathway felt and still feels dominated by the opposite gender and race, but I didn’t see myself in any other career pathway but this one. It feels as though the only way to change the face of architecture or perhaps create a new pathway for a diversity of architects is to be part of that change. Creating a new reality (perhaps almost similar to the image above) and being at its forefront could alter the architectural language around us, could it not?

In 2016, I was 1 out 3811 students who had just started their architecture degree (began their part one) in the UK. However, I was also part of the 7% who were black or black British. Fortunately, my year group was quite diverse, it being that the university I attended was in London. That 7% may have not seemed like an enormous deal, but the reality is very telling. I knew that the pathway I had chosen was predominantly male, even when I spoke to the friends and family around me, I felt a presence of temporary uncertainty: ‘that will be hard, especially because you are a female and black’, ‘it’s a male-dominated sector, isn’t it?’. Looking back now to all the undergraduate interviews, open days and degree shows that I attended, there was not a black female in educational leadership (a tutor or dean), someone who looked like me to tell me that all of this was possible: ‘I have completed the same pathway you have just started, looking the way I do, and you can do too.’ I ended up being one out of two black females who graduated the architecture course in 2019.

During my time as an undergraduate, it was only after I joined the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust, when I really saw myself amongst people who had these ‘invisible barriers’, that I felt confident to complete the seven years successfully for the first time. The trust was more than architecture. They supported people from BAME communities and disadvantaged backgrounds, and still do. I saw people who had the same goals and aspirations as myself. The trust goes beyond supporting people of colour to pose a challenge against racial oppression and differences in professions outside of architecture. The reality is that these issues are not spoken about in universities, and frankly, the thought of architecture as a career pathway in many schools and colleges in underprivileged areas is almost unheard of. Let alone for females.

The challenge to create a diverse cohort of architects only works through two sets of people: through architects and future architects and through academic leaders and students. In order to create a gender and racially diverse profession, academic leaders, people in profession and architects should support and rise to the challenge of supporting young architects in their journeys, especially ones from BAME communities, as they are more likely to drop-out due to financial hardships, mental health or personal issues. Whether that be through practices showcasing diversity on their websites or simply through creating conversations just like this. These should be the norms of an architectural career.

As humans, an innate part of us likes to be inspired by someone who we can see as part of ourselves in a profession we aspire to be part of, but as a young black woman, there seems to be a limitation on who I can look up to. However, as a young adult, you start to learn that the relationship between students, architects, part ones and academics should also be a balanced one. The saying is ‘it takes two to tango’, right? Well, it also takes us as people of colour to create these opportunities, to not be afraid to ask or speak and to not give up. Like Ghanaian born British architect Elsie Owusu has once said before, ‘We need to think in a disruptive way’. Do not be scared to apply for a job even when the profile page is limited to a certain gender or race, ask those uncomfortable questions about racial and gender equality in your interviews. This alludes to a similar notion from the architect Harriet Harris:  ‘I think that one of the problems we have is that many of us will fight for equality, but when jobs come up, we don’t apply…Most women, only apply for jobs when they’re over-qualified and most men will apply when they’re under-qualified’. The same goes for race. We are not limited by the colour of our skin, so we should not make it a limitation. But we also need to create our own opportunities too and compose your own network. Create a design collective if need be.

Above all, let these exchanges happen earlier on in academic life, such as secondary school or sixth form because it was only until sixth form that I knew that a career in architecture could be an option for me (and through a student too)  and thus, should carry into institutions of higher education.

‘Course syllabuses also heavily favor men’s work and writings, leaving students with the impression that women have contributed little of value’

Academics, strive to create syllabuses which infuse a well-rounded view of architects. The screenshot from the Noughts + Crosses series is not far-fetched, it is merely an interpretation of what architecture could be like with the significance of a diverse field. One in which our heritages are expressed through our work. However, the issues do not just stop at race and gender in the profession but onto equal pay too. So I am inspired to carry on this journey because I know there are several young black female future architects on this journey as well. I’m inspired by the likes of Elsie Owusu who launched ‘Architecture: Incubator’ with the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust to help architects from diverse backgrounds to start small practices, but I am also confident because of collectives who are already developing these dialogues. By building these discussions we are creating a place for us, challenging this profession as well as many others, and establishing a new architectural language that speaks to us.