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Architecture is still some way off truly diverse representation

Indujah Srikaran

Too often, racial diversity in architecture favours people who match the profile of those already in elite positions rather than representing the majority of underprivileged racial groups, argues Indujah Srikaran

How can we represent all people of colour in the architecture profession?
How can we represent all people of colour in the architecture profession? Credit: Indujah Srikaran

The current absence of true diverse representation in the architecture industry calls for change. With British ethnic minorities more likely to come from under-privileged backgrounds, we must ask ourselves, are all people of colour truly being represented in the architecture profession?

While many large architecture practices and institutions begin to address aspects of diversity, such as gender or ethnic background, much less stress is being placed on tackling socio-economic diversity and its intersection with race. If we begin to assume that all people of colour belong to deprived backgrounds, then we ignore the underlying issues we face with diverse representation in our industry.

We need to question who is representing under-represented racialised groups? Who is selecting them to enter these roles? Were they selected through merit, nepotism, bias, wealth, or an elite education? Is it only elite people of colour that get to talk about race? And do people of colour have to internalise a particular image in order to succeed?

The current demographics of our industry do not demonstrate a balance in representation and are ignorant of socio-economic backgrounds when flaunting diversity. The ARB’s equality and diversity data for 2020 shows that only 0.9 per cent of qualified architects are black or black British. The RIBA education statistics survey 2018/9 shows that while 8.3 per cent of students applying to study architecture are black, only 1.5 per cent of students successfully completing their architectural education are black. A decrease between application and qualification is also seen for Asian, mixed, and other students while for white students, the percentage increases. Furthermore, The AJ race diversity survey 2020 showed that 70 per cent of respondents either agreed or strongly agreed that they are discouraged by the lack of ‘BAME’ employees in the profession.

It must not be presumed that students from ethnic minority backgrounds are less competent when the true problem lies in employers devaluing diverse origins, styles and cultural capital

The profession is still observationally over-represented by white-male, middle-class, privately educated individuals who have attended prestigious Russell Group universities or independent architecture schools. Those in senior architectural roles have the power to make decisions and take actions, and it becomes perilous when they misrepresent communities within our built environment.

It needs to be ensured that opportunities to reach these positions are equitably distributed and pull upon the talents of the population as a whole. People are naturally shaped by their backgrounds and life experiences, therefore, to generate a valued built environment it is vital these roles reflect all geographical and social backgrounds to help redistribute fair access to opportunities and create truly diverse representation. Educational institutions, employers and architectural programmes all have a role to play in ensuring race and socio-economic background are not barriers to success.

Going to a private school in the UK increases your chances of getting into a highly valued university – and research has found that being an alumnus of a leading school means you are more likely to reach an elite position. This suggests that networking and nepotism play an important role in elite representation.

The vast majority of disadvantaged young people are educated in the state sector and although British ethnic minorities are generally more likely to go to university than their white British peers, they are usually, under-represented in highly selective Russell Group or independent institutions. The Russell Group has acknowledged this, stating 'it is clear that serious challenges remain, and black students, in particular, continue to be underrepresented'.

The Office for Students, the government's higher-education regulator, has placed a target to eliminate the gap in access to 'high tariff' universities between students from the most under-represented areas and the most highly represented areas by 2039/40. However, to achieve this closure, the number of students entering these universities from the most highly represented areas would have to remain effectively frozen, while students entering from the most under-represented areas would have to increase by 640 per cent over the next 20 years.

From observation in the architectural sphere, those in senior roles are generally from the UK's leading architecture schools. If there is a lack of ethnic minorities attending, it leads to a lack of racial representation in senior positions. In addition, if only people with high social, economic, and cultural capital are able to enter and succeed in these institutions then it also leads to a lack of people from various socio-economic backgrounds in representational positions.

The current education system focuses more on statistically seeming more ‘inclusive’ through entry statistics than directly tackling the polarised system that diminishes the prospects of those from certain races and low socio-economic backgrounds. Although many universities have access schemes in place for students from low-income families, very few apply for places as they are either discouraged or see these institutions as ‘white privileged spaces’ that would not accept ‘people like me’.

Misrecognition, unconscious bias, and the narrow-internalised image of ‘potential’ are also detrimental to effective systemic diverse representations in architecture. The idea of ‘potential’ is a constructed notion based on specific economic, social, and cultural capitals which puts under-represented backgrounds at a disadvantage. The practices that perpetuate the cycle of misrecognition pathologise people of colour, seeing them as ‘problematic’ or ‘deficient’. For ethnic minorities from low socio-economic backgrounds to be recognised as ‘having potential’, this attitude needs to be decrypted or else it leads to internalised shame and a lack of confidence. It must not be presumed that academics and students from ethnic minority backgrounds are ‘less competent’ when the true problem lies with educational settings and employers devaluing diverse origins, styles, languages, and cultural capital.

Moreover, the media have a significant influence in shaping the political, social, and cultural agenda within the construction industry; deciding what to cover and when to turn a blind eye. Architectural journalists write opinion pieces and decide who is widely represented in the media. If the majority of opinion pieces are written and chosen by the elite, we risk excluding a diverse range of opinions and voices. If journalists and others working in the media all come from a similar background and have similar experiences, there is a danger that key stories and viewpoints will be missed.

For example, in the aftermath of the tragedy at Grenfell Tower, Channel 4 news presenter Jon Snow criticised journalists, stating: 'Why didn’t any of us see the Grenfell action blog? Why didn’t we know? ... Why didn’t we enable the residents of Grenfell Tower – and indeed the other hundreds of towers like it around Britain – to find pathways to talk to us and for us to expose their story? ... We are too far removed from those who lived their lives in Grenfell Tower.'

There is a danger if those in positions of power are from a homogenous background with limited life experiences

Many of those in charge of architectural media representation and story coverage are disconnected from the lives of deprived ethnic minority communities and do not truly understand their concerns, worries or frustrations. Tackling this disconnect and building opportunities to showcase concerns of people from all backgrounds in the industry is imperative. There is a danger to society if those in positions of power are from a homogenous background with limited life experiences that do not reflect the lives of the built environment as a whole.

To solve problems of true diverse representation we must ask questions such as: why are people of colour suffering from worse attrition rates? Why are they struggling to attain jobs? Is this affecting the overall architectural output of the country? The answer to the latter is yes – it limits architectural development through understood expression, it repeats the mistakes of the past in social housing and community development through ignorance of experience, it fails to meet the needs of changing contexts because it caters to the interests of a narrowly educated, middle-class group and its preceding tropes, it ignores the power of popular culture and it ignores the inspiration that revolutionary diverse architects have on young working-class students.

Those in elite positions in the architectural field, including the small number from ethnic minorities, are typically from high socio-economic backgrounds and/or have had a prestigious education. The elite are perpetuating a cycle of who reaches the top by choosing those like themselves through unconscious bias or nepotism.

This has led to racial diversity being exhibited through people of colour who match the profile of those already in elite positions rather than truly representing the majority of under-privileged racialised groups from low socio-economic backgrounds. The assumption has been made that by including more people of colour we have ‘solved’ racial representation, but this is not the case. If we only use the privileged to represent people of colour when the majority are from low socio-economic backgrounds, we create a serious disconnection between those making the decisions and those these decisions affect within the built environment.

A generation of single facet architects cannot hope to reflect the aspirations and requirements of a society fast shedding tyrannical systems or connecting globally and create new cultural consequences.

Indujah Srikaran is a Part II architectural assistant working in Warwickshire, interested in social mobility, racial inequalities, and pedagogical methods within the built environment