Racism blights our profession. Gurmeet Sian’s personal account of life as an architect reveals delight and horror – and demands action
The brutal killing of George Floyd, recorded and disseminated, has galvanised support for the horrendous manner in which black lives are treated differently to others. Isolated racist behaviour, and systemic racism within institutions and society, against black people, must stop.
The recent #BLM protests will, I hope, bring a deeper awareness and understanding of what black, Asian and minority ethnic people face. Further, I hope that this movement brings some solidarity, so that we can all speak up and out against racism, and call it out if it is witnessed.
These last couple of weeks have brought back a rush of stinging memories for me, of when I have been subject to racist abuse. I was born in England from an Indian background, and proudly wear a white turban to signify my Sikh heritage. I live and work in London and have lived in Liverpool.
In my adult life, at times, the abuse has been open and overt, and at times subtle and sly. As anyone who has been subject to any kind of abuse knows, these can be insufferable moments.
When abuse occurs, you end up gasping for oxygen in the air, as the atmosphere turns rancid with hate. Allies can sometimes be found, but often not, leaving you adrift, feeling excluded, segregated, hated, and mocked.
Within architecture, where non-white participation is not growing, and is disproportionately low at all levels (according to the limited data available), I have often felt, and have been made to feel, like the ‘outsider’. And yes, racist comments directed to me from within my own profession have not helped. But – and this is important – I have never felt like I should be doing anything else, or another job in another profession. The immense satisfaction of working in a team to try to make our environment a better place for all trumps any dissenting inner monologue.
For anyone reading who is disheartened... you have a right to feel this way. But please do not give up hope! You should know that on many, many, many occasions I have been supported, mentored, carried, held, nurtured and encouraged by amazing people. Those who look beyond colour, and look towards character.
When working and designing buildings, the fruits of this endeavour are, only very rarely, highlighted for their quality. So I was delighted that the Phoenix Garden Community Building, which I was architect for, was shortlisted for an RIBA Regional Award. I’m so proud that my first/last/only(??) recognition from these awards was for a building for the community.
To anyone reading this, contemplating a career in architecture, and worried that they would be seen as an outsider… my blunt message to them is that yes, at present, you probably will, on occasion, feel that way. However, as I have found, you CAN find joy. And you can find a community. And you can find that you will be recognised for doing good, meaningful work.
There is a hell of a lot to do to bring diversity into my profession, and more inclusivity, not just as a slogan, but as a reality. And I look at myself too, and question how I can do more. Although I run regular archi-type community workshops and have received work-experience GCSE students, specifically but not exclusively from BAME backgrounds, I pledge to do more to help those thinking of a walking down a path towards working in the architecture profession. Maybe you could too.
Gurmeet Sian is founder of Office Sian
Portrait by Joe McGorty