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BFA works for pride, not prejudice, for black women architects

Shahed Saleem

Racial and gender diversity is an acknowledged issue in the profession. Four young black architects have taken it on and their organisation, BFA, is gathering pace

Black Females in Architecture co-founders, from left:  Alisha Morenike Fisher, Selasi Setufe, Akua Danso and Neba Sere, shot at Second Home.
Black Females in Architecture co-founders, from left: Alisha Morenike Fisher, Selasi Setufe, Akua Danso and Neba Sere, shot at Second Home. Credit: Ivan Jones

‘If you want to be a successful architect, if you’re passionate about architecture, you’re going to have to think outside of the box’. Selasi Setufe’s comment comes towards the end of two hours of intense conversation with the four founders of Black Females in Architecture on a quiet Saturday morning in east London. To write about them I’ve been trying to work out how to summarise both our discussion, and the organisation. But it’s not an easy task – the issues they are tackling and the themes they are addressing are wide ranging, relevant, progressive and urgent.

BFA was not planned, rather it emerged organically through the chance meetings of these four women, Setufe, Neba Sere, Akua Danso and Alisha Morenike Fisher, at various architecture industry events over 2017 and 2018. Drawn to each other through the shared experience of being black women negotiating a white male dominated industry, rather than shy away, they were pitching in. At the time Sere was a trustee of the Architecture Foundation, and Setufe an RIBA trustee. All four are recent graduates, and the breadth of experience that they have already notched up, in life and work, is diverse and engaging. 

BFA co-director Setufe was born and raised in Barking, east London, although she spent a few childhood years in Ghana. After her Part 1 at Portsmouth she spent two years out, when she worked in a practice in Lublijana, before completing her Part 2 at Manchester School of Architecture. After that she set up her own practice, Crystal Design Studios and started working with Elsie Owusu Architects. She recently left to join Public Practice, through which she is now working in her local council’s development team. 

Sere is from Cologne in Germany and came to the UK to join the MArch course at Central Saint Martins where she explored ideas of participatory design and community engagement. This interest continued after her graduation when she went on to work for the community organisations Roman Road Trust then Build Up Foundation, before taking this experience into her current role at Penoyre and Prasad.

Danso grew up in Tottenham, London, took her Part 1 at the University of Kent and was then an intern at the the Architectural Review, also working in small practices. Her Part 2 at the University of Liverpool included a six month Erasmus placement in Berlin, and on completion of the course she joined Scott Brownrigg, where she now works.

Morenike Fisher, also from north London, took her Part 1 at Hull which she completed with support from an RIBA student fund. Having graduated in 2017 she worked with Hunt Thompson Architects for 11 months before moving to Sweden to run her own company involved in environmental sciences. Following this she worked at Public Practice before moving to project development at Arcadis, where she is now. 

BFA works for pride, not prejudice, for black women architects   Clockwise from top left: Selasi Setufe, Alisha Morenike Fisher, Neba Sere and Akua Danso. Shot at Second Home.
BFA works for pride, not prejudice, for black women architects Clockwise from top left: Selasi Setufe, Alisha Morenike Fisher, Neba Sere and Akua Danso. Shot at Second Home. Credit: Ivan Jones

A 2016 DCMS report showed that architects are 90% white, and 97.5% come from ‘more advantaged backgrounds’

Urgent message
When the four met they were operating in different spheres of architecture, each with their various networks and trajectories. Through their conversations and growing friendships they realised that the race and gender discrimination that they may have experienced or observed, and put to one side, was shared, so betraying a structural problem in the profession of architecture itself. The four set up a WhatsApp group to stay in contact and continue their discussions, and added more women with shared backgrounds as they met them, and the network grew. The urgency of their message was illustrated with its speed of growth, as they were very quickly at the 250 WhatsApp group limit. So began the formalisation of the network into an organisation, a process that is still under way. Through the continued sharing and articulating of experiences among themselves, the group found that as much as race and gender-based inequalities, they were also raising questions about the nature and experience of architectural education and practice itself, and how this is affecting a new generation which is trying to navigate it. Here the intersectionality of BFA’s observations and critique were not only salient but threw up further questions that go to the heart of architecture’s future. 

Held back by low income

A 2016 report by the DCMS showed that architects are 90% white, and 97.5% from ‘more advantaged backgrounds. It is clear that these are the kind of statistics that underline one of BFA’s central concerns, that the industry does not represent the society it serves, and that it is not structured to enable people from lower-incomes, which is where a large number of BAME candidates come from, to access it or survive in it. We talk at length about the need for transparency within the profession, how students from BAME and lower-income backgrounds should know about the costs both of education and of expected earnings, which do not often correlate. The point is pertinently made: if you come from a low or one-income household, or have caring responsibilities, or your income is used to support family members, then the debt that you incur through architectural education, the length of time you have to spend not earning, can make your earning ability in ­practice ­untenable. The result is a vicious cycle where architecture becomes more and more elite, and less and less diverse. While architecture schools are now showing diverse student bodies, attainment gaps are increasing and progression from Part 1 to Part 2 is disproportionately low for BAME students. 

Flexible thinking

BFA is acutely aware of these realities, and rails against them by proposing a flexible and inventive approach to architecture. It insists that not going on to Part 2 is not a failure, and that successful interdisciplinary careers can be pursued where collaboration, project-based initiatives and networks open up new possibilities. To build capacity and provide opportunities for its members, BFA has a series of regular events based on mentoring, networking, promoting and making black women practitioners visible – plus  ‘living room sessions’ to provide a safe space to share experiences, a book club to discuss wider issues, and research projects. The founders are active public speakers with a growing international presence, having recently addressed forums in Melbourne and New York. 

Throughout our conversation a number of key themes and issues circulate and overlap: that the experience of black women in architecture is specific, and that BFA exists to create a space where these experiences can be shared and addressed; that the power of architecture lies in its ability for social engagement, and it is through collaborations across disciplines and individuals that positive change can be affected; that architecture needs to diversify in order to properly reflect the realities of the world that it operates within; and that with diversity comes new narratives that must be placed within the culture and practice of the profession. BFA exudes energy, passion and dynamism, and these four women have a message that resonates and is spreading. Along with advocacy for black women, this is an initiative that has the potential to speak for many, and so influence the production of architecture, inspiring buildings and spaces with social purpose and a responsiveness to the contemporary, complex and diverse worlds that we inhabit. 

Shahed Saleem teaches architecture at the University of Westminster and is the author of ‘The British Mosque, an architectural and social history’He reviewed Cambridge Mosque for the RIBA Journal

Interview and photographs took place at Second Home




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