Originally written by Natasha Espada and published by Architect Magazine on November 19, 2020.
With only 3% of U.S. architects being Latinx, 2% being Black, and an even smaller fraction who identify as minority women, our profession has historically been one of white privilege—more specifically, white male privilege. The exit of minorities and women early on in the profession and in mid-career has slowed efforts to achieve a more representative demographic.
To truly increase diversity and inclusion in the architecture profession, we must create a stronger pipeline and change the culture of architectural education. Many young people from underprivileged backgrounds don’t see architecture as a career choice; the fact that architecture is rarely taught in K–12 schools doesn’t help.
Several years ago, I attended a career day at a bilingual Boston public high school serving a predominantly Latinx population. Most students had never met an architect before. Their questions and concerns centered on how many years of college an architectural degree requires. I, a Puerto Rican, described the role of architects and presented my work in Spanish. Still, architecture as a career seemed unattainable and the students lost interest.
Though touring a building under construction or visiting a bustling design firm may make an architectural career more tangible, high school may be too late to introduce students to design. Introducing elementary school students to architecture, design, and drafting might be better—as would connecting middle and high school students to BIPOC professionals and mentors who could review their portfolios and architectural program applications, helping them compete in a more equitable way.
My father is the reason I’m in architecture today. I grew up knowing several engineers but few architects. He encouraged me to apply to architecture school to bridge my abilities in math and art, and assured me that I would have other options if I decided I was not interested. If more students of color had someone in their lives who could see their strengths and potential, more might pursue careers not visible to them in their families or communities.
But the push for diversity should not end with early education. Homogeneity perpetuates the architectural profession because it is a reflection of architecture school. It perpetuates in the way projects are taught, developed, and presented, and in the way students and professors dress, speak, and articulate their work.
My own program of study focused on the work of male American, European, and Japanese architects. The faculty had zero women of color and very few men of color. The few BIPOC professors had to follow a curriculum and pedagogy set by a Eurocentric agenda. Those from a different culture felt the need to repress fully expressing themselves for fear of discrimination and lack of opportunity.
If professors and administrators do not learn about the different cultures represented among the student body, they cannot understand their students’ full potential, nor the precedents and experiences that guide and form their choices.
Thirty years later, I have seen very few changes in academia. When I was invited to participate in juries early in my career, I would have to restrain myself to ensure I was using architectural language that fit the culture of that specific school. More recently, I taught at Northeastern University School of Architecture, which has a diverse and international student population. I modified my teaching style to connect with the students through my culture and my experiences. It was well received in both the classroom and the studio. Celebrating my ethnicity and heritage was a breakthrough for me as a professor: It gave me confidence to find my voice as an architect.
The challenges of this year have revealed the true inequities in our profession, from the pipeline to architectural education and to practice. They have allowed—and, in fact, required—us to change the status quo, to question and dismantle the existing systems in order to create a more diverse and equitable future.
This work will not happen by itself. Structural changes will occur only with the perseverance and proactivity of educators, professionals, and the entire architectural community. But it can be done.