Architecture for Everyone

For the second year in a row I was lucky enough to attend the annual conference of the Association of Architecture Organizations (AAO), which just wrapped up in Chicago yesterday. It’s always exciting to connect with and learn from inspiring people around the country (and a few from other corners of the world), all dedicated to enhancing public dialogue around architecture and design. We shared ideas about building audiences around architecture, facilitating hands-on learning for kids, managing citywide architecture festivals and even incorporating augmented reality into our tours. It was a great program. But ultimately, I think we missed an opportunity to seriously explore what should be our number one concern as we engage with the public: diversifying the field of architecture and design.

The program started off with an introduction provided by Michelle Boone, Commissioner of the City of Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events. She remarked on the fact that she was the only African-American person in a room full of white people, myself included. She noted that she did see a tech guy who shared her complexion, no one else. It’s no secret that architecture is one of the least diverse professions. Only 1% of all members of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) are African-American, and 3% are Hispanic. Those statistics are going to be hard to change if those of us educating and inspiring the public about architecture are uniformly white, as the membership of AAO seems to be (I did see someone from India, I believe he was the only exception). Kids are most inspired by those whom they see themselves in, and most children of color truthfully aren’t going to see themselves in me. Until we make diversifying our field our biggest priority, we’re coming up seriously short of our shared mission to inspire the public, everyone in the public, to discover why design matters.

A good start to solving this problem is found in the Chicago Architecture Foundation’s (CAF) commitment to quality over quantity in their approach to fostering diversity in their youth education programming. Gabrielle Lyon, VP of Education and Experience at CAF explained this in the context of their reputable Teens program. They take a small yet dedicated group of teens, mostly from minority backgrounds, on a multi-year in-depth and hands on exploration into the field of architecture. I met a couple of these teens while walking through the Architecture Biennial at the Chicago Cultural Center. One student, Roberto, gave me a truly awesome introduction to one of the exhibits. He wowed me with his thoughtfulness and knowledge as he helped me look at the work on display with a fresh, new perspective. He was clearly on his way to change the world.

CAF Teens

CAF Teens (image taken from architecture.org)

One important element of diversity that the AAO conference did touch upon is that of gender gap in architecture. Only 17% of all AIA members are women. This of course all adds up to meaning that most of our architects, designers of our cities and our neighborhoods, are white men.  Caroline James, co-founder of Design for Equality, gave a rousing presentation on the importance of giving women equal credit for equal work in architecture. Central to her efforts in Design for Equality is a petition to the Pritzker Jury asking for recognition of Denise Scott Brown’s work in Robert Venturi’s 1991 Pritzker Architecture Prize. In only honoring Venturi, the jury made a statement that Brown’s role as Venturi’s wife trumped her role as equal partner in their decades long collaboration. At an awards ceremony in 2013 Brown rightly declared that it was time for her to share in the prize. She said, “They owe me not a Pritzker Prize but a Pritzker inclusion ceremony. Let’s salute the notion of joint creativity.” Venturi has signed the petition along with more than 20,000 other people. As recounted in a New York Times article about the petition, Brown recalled the sexism she experienced on a daily basis by saying, “When we married I suddenly was being told, “Look, let’s just keep this photograph of architects,’” she recalled. “I’d say, ‘I am an architect’ and they’d say, ‘Would you mind moving out of the picture, please?'”

I applaud Denise Scott Brown, Caroline James, Michelle Boone and countless others for standing up against the inequalities in architecture. Now it’s time to be joining their fight as educators. There’s little sense in sharing ideas about our architecture centers and programs, if we’re not first addressing the lack of diversity in our field and in the “public” we’re truthfully reaching.

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