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Takeover: Decolonise Architecture tackles institutional racism head on

Words:
Tanyaradzwa Chiganze, Mohit Buch, Jasmine Lawrence, Harsha Gore, and Flora Jing Lin Ng

The time for fine words on inclusion is over: a group in Bath is taking decisive practical action to recognise all the world’s architecture, storm the discipline’s privilege and face down imperialism’s legacy

Biomimicry: Zimbabwe. The termite mound has been a key precedent for passive cooling techniques. According to inhabitat.com, the Eastgate Centre in Harare uses the same principles to save $3.5mn in cooling demands.
Biomimicry: Zimbabwe. The termite mound has been a key precedent for passive cooling techniques. According to inhabitat.com, the Eastgate Centre in Harare uses the same principles to save $3.5mn in cooling demands.

We are taught to be subtle, but too often we are silent. As we build for our society, architecture continues to reflect its political context, when the need for inclusivity clear. Our universities yearn to be beacons of diversity but the lecture hall upholds the status quo and suppresses the voices of many through systemic inequality (further explored by CABE report Architecture and Race). Today’s students, born at a time of higher social and climate awareness, are the profession’s future. Fresh-faced and hoping to ‘do good’ via our designs, we enter an architectural education that heavily favours the privileged. Intricately tied to colonialism, institutional racism is deeply harmful in architecture; its lack of acknowledgement maintains the hush.

Now Decolonise Architecture has broken the silence. We are a collective of students and alumni of the University of Bath – what started as a 200-signatory open letter became a student group tackling racism at a grassroots level. Collaborating with staff across the university, we are enabling a holistic and inclusive education. This method of drawing out experiences, then examining how to address systemic bias in our way of working and our treatment of others could be a model for your university or practice.

In July 2020, Decolonise Architecture held an unprecedented online forum within the department which allowed staff and students to openly share their experiences relating to systemic racism and subconscious bias. The event featured preliminary audience talks followed by smaller breakout groups to discuss potential changes. The ideas from the forum were condensed into a report and led to nine action points which have since defined our mission – for instance looking at how social issues are presented, and ensuring social context including slavery or colonialism is included alongside case studies. 

Subsequently, we have been working closely with the directors of studies for the BSc and MArch courses at Bath, as well as external groups and organisations. In answer to the RIBA’s reported attainment gap, we have launched a department-specific report tool to develop a more inclusive environment for students of minority ethnic backgrounds and provide support for any student who may experience discrimination. Moreover, regular contact with wider university leadership is scaling up our impact to an institutional level – recent discussions with the university’s Widening Access and Participation team have focused on addressing the cause of lower acceptance rates of BAME students. We aim to halt the culture of students being left behind as a result of their ethnic and economic background by delivering outreach initiatives with young people from disadvantaged communities. 

  • Dougong: China.  The Dougong system is a keystone technique in traditional Chinese architecture and uses no fixings. Stacked interlocking brackets form the timber frame structure and transfer the heavy loads from horizontal beams into columns. Multiple brackets add elasticity and earthquake resistance.
    Dougong: China. The Dougong system is a keystone technique in traditional Chinese architecture and uses no fixings. Stacked interlocking brackets form the timber frame structure and transfer the heavy loads from horizontal beams into columns. Multiple brackets add elasticity and earthquake resistance.
  • Malqaf: Egypt. In this traditional windcatcher turrets face the prevailing wind and redirect cool air into the building. It warms up as it travels and is drawn out through high level openings. It is now being looked at to meet the artificial cooling demands of Egypt.
    Malqaf: Egypt. In this traditional windcatcher turrets face the prevailing wind and redirect cool air into the building. It warms up as it travels and is drawn out through high level openings. It is now being looked at to meet the artificial cooling demands of Egypt.
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Decolonise Architecture believes global architecture has equal standing to commonly taught conventional examples. Exposure to the depth of international architecture can equip students and professionals alike with a wide palette of precedents. Our team regularly curates an alternative reading list and a weekly newsletter for students that focuses on architects’ ideas and key building studies from around the world. Similarly, we are working with the library to provide literature on topics that address architecture’s relationship with race. Such endeavours form the base of the group’s sustained collaboration with the department to achieve meaningful curriculum change.

From classical to modernism, our cohorts are rarely given the chance to look beyond the implicit red line boundary around Europe and Northern America. DA produces fortnightly? ‘Technology Tuesday’ content to highlight selected structural, environmental and design principles from various countries. These serve as an introduction to the global variety of practical design solutions. As a result, designs that would normally be side-lined as ‘primitive’ are showcased for their effectiveness and ingenuity. These principles of sustainable design have been championed across all continents; we would be amiss to not credit their contribution to our progress today. Where material honesty and efficiency are celebrated, why not start by teaching in depth tried and tested vernacular techniques that have worked for centuries? 

Our ‘Spotlight’ content features architects that are conscious of their cultural heritage and take on challenges to defy the norm. The lore of Kahn’s and Lloyd Wright’s is well-founded and justified, but we ought to recognise the presence of equals from around the world. From Francis Kéré’s schools in Burkina Faso to Yasmeen Lari’s affordable housing in Pakistan. These posts aim to highlight placemaking in countries that are undergoing architectural decolonisation. Architecture has never been constrained by region and neither should our education. We should recognise and credit the talent of architects beyond the Western canon, who have achieved success in their own right. 

Architecture is a discipline shaped by collaboration. We have the collective ability to challenge overt and subtle bias. Decolonise Architecture aims to address imbalanced power dynamics and believes that to be silent is to be complicit. By broadening horizons in education, we are taking the first steps towards overcoming the barriers that prevent our profession from being a level playing field. Spreading awareness will always be necessary but by providing meaningful solutions, our industry can evolve into a more equitable space for all. 

The Inclusive Review

The Inclusive Review was the first anti-racism initiative implemented with the architecture department at the University of Bath. The review is a flagship developmental tool within architecture but can often display the significant prevailing subconscious bias. 

Written by students and approved by the department, the guide contains six key questions (below) which can be used to check whether one’s own behaviour is biased or offensive. In a concise and user-friendly format, many of the guidelines could easily be applied to a range of situations – from interactions in the workplace to internal presentations or daily social interactions. This document is in circulation in the department at Bath and is available for all institutions and workplaces to adapt.


All authors are committee members of Decolonise Architecture: @decolonisearchitecture on Instagram

The Inclusive Review. Six key questions to bear in mind to conduct an actively anti-racist architecture review.
The Inclusive Review. Six key questions to bear in mind to conduct an actively anti-racist architecture review.

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