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Storm the barricades of systemic inequality in architecture

Words:
Ruth Lang

Educators and the profession must acknowledge and then dismantle the ingrained barriers to state school students entering architecture says Ruth Lang

66 Portland Place is magnificent but can also be intimidating.
66 Portland Place is magnificent but can also be intimidating. Credit: Andrew Hendry/RIBA

The recent fiasco over algorithms privileging private schools in determining A-level grades highlighted one of the means by which disadvantage is dealt to those from state school backgrounds. Yet the advantages of private education are much more deeply ingrained and far reaching in architecture than the barriers to university education this established. Other advantages with no relationship to academic or professional capacity have long influenced the demographics of the profession.

This systemic inequality has a detrimental effect on the journey from application, through education, to practice, affecting the lack of diversity evident in the architectural profession. These barriers are not just financial but social. Even at school, students can be made to feel that architecture is ‘not for them’. By constraining expectations to what might have gone before – either in their school environment or family life – limits are placed upon their aspirations. Exposure to those already practising can help, and students who have family connections with practising architects to offer insight, advice, work experience placements, or to suggest subjects for discussion at interview, will feel more comfortable applying to study architecture. Demonstrating a sense of familiarity, awareness and confidence is a sure route to acceptance at interview, so those without this background can be at an immediate disadvantage unless the interviewing staff have been trained to recognise the unconscious bias they can bring to the process.

For those who succeed in gaining a place, further inhibitions can be taken into their university experience, where we reward those brave enough to strive towards new territories in design, and even to challenge the definition of the profession. Students studying without financial security often feel the need to conform more keenly in order to get a ‘solid’ qualification, curtailing the bravery of their ambitions. While as educators we must try to counteract this, often their anxiety for conformity can be dismissed as a lack of enthusiasm for the discipline.

Mentor pairs meet at an Introduction event.
Mentor pairs meet at an Introduction event. Credit: Lilla Nyeki

Overbearing grandeur

Students have told me this feeling of discomfort stretches to the locations where we hold events. The grandeur of venues such as 66 Portland Place, for example (pictured), can feel overbearing for students and practitioners who do not align to its historicist aesthetics and imperial iconography. We may wring our hands asking why certain groups or demo­graphics don’t attend events intended to welcome them, yet we don’t see the barriers we erect. For all the negative impact of coronavirus upon our cultural experiences, it has been heartening to see how the ‘digital pivot’ has brought so many new voices to the fore, in the demographics of both panels and audience representation, and how this has flattened previous hierarchies.

Setting out in practice, preference is often given to students whose connections with industry may lift their application above a sea of others, or who are able to take low paying placements because they have financial support from their families. Practices may insist that employment is based on merit alone, but those offering these places are wilfully blind to the inequality such preference reinforces. Similarly, in later establishing their own practice, these same graduates may feel they must take a safe route rather than create a more entrepreneurial form of practice, since the potential for failure and its financial consequences is more significant. While we may jokingly remind our students how so many of their heroes were first commissioned by moneyed parents, or married into financial stability, it is no coincidence that such routes into the profession are still prevalent.

Thankfully, it does not have to stay this way. Such barriers can be overcome by the student’s resourcefulness, determination and occasionally luck, but the onus should be on educators and professionals to acknowledge and then help dismantle them. We must understand our own preconceptions, expectations and assumptions, and how this privileges what we value as a ‘good’ architect.

We must strive to build stronger, further reaching links through the education system, engaging with initiatives such as Arts Emergency which build connections with students beyond our usual socio-economic bubbles, in order to demystify and open up the profession.  In the histories we write, and the practices we discuss, it’s imperative that we highlight alternative paths taken, and how to overcome the barriers we shy away from discussing. 

Ruth Lang is a senior lecturer at University of the Arts, London


Up close at RIBA HQ with architectural historian Neal Shasore, 6-7pm, 24 September

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