At E2 we believe in the need to raise levels of equality in society. We want to be forward thinking, and active in finding ways to enable positive change. We will be engaging in a series of brief monthly blogs asking the questions relating to an overarching titular inquiry: ‘Should architects be held accountable for raising levels of societal equality?’ Join us on our journey. The more we engage with this as a community the higher chance we will come to workable solutions together.
Now Black History Month (BHM) is over and we’ve ticked the box (or not) we can all breathe a sigh of relief and ‘get back to normal’ right? I would argue: wrong!
Discussions in wider society are moving towards a general recognition that not enough is taught regarding Black history, and that our knowledge as a nation is rose-tinted by a colonialist revisionist outlook. The concept of ‘Black history is British history’ is becoming harder to ignore. In addition, campaigns to have Black history integrated within the year-round curriculum in British schools are gaining ground.
Increasingly BHM is seen as tokenistic: a ‘tick-box’ exercise, sometimes with little thought, depth or meaningful outcomes. This is not to denigrate BHM – far from it, as it has been useful in generating interest in issues of inequality for Black people in the UK – but simply, it is to recognise that perhaps now it has outlasted its usefulness. Without addressing the underlying issues of inequality in society – and without sufficient understanding within the general population – well-meaning observations of BHM can backfire catastrophically, especially when ‘expedient’ bodies/companies scramble something, anything, together to ‘be seen’ as doing something; out of a fear of communal shaming.
It could be argued that doing nothing is better than doing something that actively harms the very community that the initiative is supposed to help. Examples of this are found every year, with this year’s unedifying trophy attributed to the Royal Mail’s black painted post boxes. They were widely derided for observing BHM in this way – all the more astounding considering that the majority of postal workers on the ground are from marginalised groups, and a significant proportion of those are Black – the general consensus being that the funds used to paint the post boxes could have been more usefully allocated in order to support Black staff.
Is this not the problem? If we are only looking at observing the need to do ‘something’ surely we are only barely scratching the surface of the issue by definition.
Sir David Adjaye OBE was just awarded the Royal Gold medal in ‘recognition of his “outstanding” contribution to architecture and design’. In doing so he will become the youngest recipient of the award in over 15 years. No mean feat. Our congratulations go to him and those who work with him. They have spearheaded inclusivity in their approach to the discipline. The accolade is well deserved therefore.
Adjaye has used this platform to highlight that “Architecture is the last industry to recognise the issue of white privilege.”
Adjaye knows that this statement will be controversial. In his assessment he is, of course, spot on. As a profession we are last to confront this uneasy truth. Why still to this day is it that the vast majority of architects are white, and male? Once we’ve addressed this fact, it will become clear that there is so much more to do to dismantle the societal structures that result in this outcome as a matter of course. Our understanding of why this is then must be extrapolated further to take account of our impact as an industry in society. This conversation has barely begun! We are far behind it seems. But there is hope yet – architects have within their disposition the means and the will to change. They have done so historically when this has been required. There is no reason to believe that we cannot rise to this challenge.
As architects, we navigate a world of white privilege. Most clients are white. Most architects are white and male. Therefore, we design from an intrinsically white biased perspective of how the built environment is experienced. Given that in general society others are confronting these issues – therefore, time has passed where architects need to answer the question: ‘as architects what must we do to dismantle white privilege, what role do we have to play?’
We do need to be accountable (and hold ourselves accountable) for our part in society, and its progress, or lack thereof. We need to develop agency, and urgently, to challenge the status quo and promote a doctrine of anti-racist narratives within everything we do.
I took part in a RIBA seminar by John Amaechi OBE, “The Big Questions on Race”, where he espoused the merits of ‘functional discomfort’. Amaechi was disarmingly direct in tackling the issue of inequality in the wider context of society. At points, I found myself laughing nervously at the ridiculousness of the situation we find ourselves in, but to millions around the world and in the UK this is no laughing matter at all – it’s literally life or death. In fact, I have to recognise that my ability to laugh is in itself a symptom of my white privilege. We all need to confront that unease, or ‘discomfort’, if we are to improve our understanding of this issue, and most importantly our part in it.
Amaechi called for allies in a rallying cry at the end of his talk. He focused on the urgent need for action on an individual basis, as well as within companies etc. His cry was a plea levelled within an unspoken truth; most architects are white, our industry is “oh so white” (to coin a phrase) and although Amaechi is not part of it, he knows it.
Amaechi spoke of the danger of falling into the trap of ‘making a pledge’ for companies and individuals. “These are just words,” he argued, “where is the action?” It was a powerful point, especially as his talk was followed by just such a pledge by the RIBA itself, as well as several prominent architecture companies operating in the UK, clearly all organised without foresight of how Amaechi would end his talk.
This work requires a bottom up approach. So much of how we operate as a society is prescribed from the top down. Given that those at the top are not representative of those at the bottom, this approach fails every time. If we start at the grass roots, we can sow the real change needed to make a difference. These new shoots will then grow stronger, so that eventually they overshadow the ones that aren’t useful anymore.
At E2 we believe in the need to raise levels of societal equality and the value of action over words. Talk is cheap. We see BHM as the opportunity to raise awareness of the Black lived experience, highlighting positive examples of Black Culture and Black History. We want to be forward thinking, and active in finding ways to enable positive change for our clients as well as more widely within society.
So much of our profession is based in aspirations of enacting or enabling social improvement and inclusion. Indeed the word ‘inclusion’ is used much within the industry’s jargon. So little of the fruit bears the required outcome for so many in society.
One could argue that it is impossible to be an architect and not have an opinion on social inequality. Being socially aware is part of the job description. We design the built environment supposedly for the benefit of all. How can it be that we still have such a blinkered ‘see no evil’ approach within our industry and our own profession?
At E2 we agree that Black history is British history, Black culture British culture etc. We are subscribing to the more recent development of celebrating these year round ‘BH365’ and – importantly – looking at ways that, we as architects, and our industry, can bring about positive change for those in marginalised groups, including all people with protected characteristics.
We will be engaging in a series of brief monthly blogs asking the questions relating to an overarching titular inquiry: ‘Should architects be held accountable for raising levels of societal equality?’ Indeed, should we not be aiming for ‘equity’ over equality? But how do we achieve this? Do architects have a role to play? If so, what is it? We will spend some time developing these pertinent questions, the ones we should be asking of ourselves as architects, and seeking throughout the year to develop a reasoned approach to providing suitable answers. We will be running a series of articles as well as interviews with those who are ready and willing to engage with us on this topic. We will also be approaching existing bodies within our industry to see if there are ways that we can assist them to address these issues too. We may not arrive at all the answers. The issue is after all writ large in society. It is structural, institutional and endemic. It will take time to define, recognise and then address the issues. But in a world of historical inequality, we must act now.
As John Amaechi affirmed: “…we can’t allow another 10-15 years to pass before we do anything. In the context of a single life, this isn’t good enough. In the context of centuries of oppression, it is intolerable.”
This is the single most burning issue in society. Recent events with the COVID pandemic have only highlighted this. We need to stand up and be counted now. Join us on our journey. The more we engage with this as a community the higher chance we will come to workable solutions together.