Elsie Owusu on the benefits of increasing equality of gender, race and cultural diversity in architecture
Architecture, as a profession, should resemble the society it seeks to serve
That is why we set up Architecture: Incubator with support from the Stephen Lawrence Trust and The Prince’s Foundation. We want to find and support the next generation of talented BAME architects and, also, make existing practices more culturally diverse. All too often I attend presentations in multi-cultural areas like Shoreditch or Brixton and encounter a monochrome group of (mostly male) architects, reminiscent of the 1970s. You think, what happened? We are trying to represent the demographic of these exciting city centres, just outside. If you’re excluding talent locally, you know you’re missing out on vibrancy and the potential for creativity and positive change.
Education is the answer
It’s essential for school curriculum to keep up and employ teachers from diverse family backgrounds. It is also important that kids start designing when they are young. Architecture and urban design should be part of the curriculum for three to five years olds. At that age, most children are free from prejudice about gender, race, cultures and definitions of art and architecture. In Ghana, JustGhana Green Clubs, programmes of art, urban design and environmental education have been set up in the capital, Accra, and rural villages. Green Clubs work with kids from three years old upwards, so there’s no break at university age, young people think, suddenly, ‘Oh I’m going to be an architect now’. The process should be gentle, incremental and seamless.
I wasn’t the only black woman at the Architectural Association (AA), strangely enough
I started in 1974 when there was quite a large contingent of black and brown people from Africa, Asia and the Caribbean. It was very exciting. In those days, foreign governments used to pay for students from abroad to study at the AA. I was one of 15 “home” students, supported by the Inner London Educational Authority (ILEA). We enjoyed full maintenance grants and the fees (£580 per term) were paid. My daughter was very young then and I was part of a small group of radical architecture and art students mainly from the AA, Slade and Royal College of Art, living in Brixton and Stockwell.
In some ways, we have gone backwards
Comparing today’s statistics to those of 25 years ago when RIBA and Architects Registration Board first did the surveys, the situation is worse. In 1992, the number of BAME architects stood at 2% and now it’s at 0.9%. Compared to the demographic of people from ethnic minorities, which in London is 43% and it’s 13% nationwide, by any measure 0.9% is pretty dire.
We need champions as well as models
In 2014, I was selected as a role model, by RIBA. Being a role model is important but the effectiveness can be overrated. In my early years in architectural practice, there were very few role models but I was lucky to meet people who supported me and had confidence in my abilities. These were my champions. Women and men in positions of power, who supported my practice because, after seven years’ study, talent and competence is assured – and confirmed by admission to the profession via ARB registration. Young architects must have projects in order to create successful practices. The problem is that many people in power tend to champion others who look and sound like themselves or their children. It’s this circular process from which we must escape, to gain access to the best architectural talent.
“People tend to champion others who look and sound like them”
Society of Black Architects helped to create change in architecture
SOBA was established at more or less the same time that Stephen Lawrence was tragically murdered. Stephen was a talented young black man who wanted to be an architect. It was clear, in the early nineties that there were few opportunities for students from diverse backgrounds. We set up SOBA as a network, to talk and meet other people, strategise on how to change the profession. SOBA is now a thriving online international network. Judging from recent surveys by the Architects’ Journal and the Stephen Lawrence Trust, however, discrimination in the profession is stubbornly high.
After three decades, architects of colour remain resilient and have achieved some notable successes. These include inspirational figures such as Dame Zaha Hadid and Sir David Adjaye, both these exceptional talents have each been awarded the RIBA Gold Medal – Sir David in 2020. We praise their success and achievements – and recognise we still have much to do.
This article is based on an essay originally featured as part of Designing Diversity, a project by London recruitment agency Represent.
Elsie Owusu OBE is a British architect, born in Ghana and based in London. She an alumna of Streatham & Clapham High School. Elsie was the founding chair of the Society of Black Architects (SOBA) and has been a Council member of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) since 2014. Her portfolio includes co-leading the design of the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom in 2009 and London’s Green Park tube station in 2011, as well as work in Ghana and Nigeria. After a long career in the architecture, Owusu is an outspoken critic of “institutionalised discrimination” in the profession. She was awarded her OBE in 2003.