On Architecture and Representation

One perhaps small symptom of the pervasive and systemic racism people are now protesting in the wake of George Floyd’s murder is something most architects experience every day they show up to their office, at least pre-pandemic. That is the conspicuous lack of peers of color, particularly black and indigenous (including indigenous Latinx) peers, known by the acronym BIPOC (black and indigenous people of color).

The dramatic underrepresentation of architects like myself—I’m a biracial African American—is certainly not as urgent a problem as police killings of unarmed black people. However, our profession’s lack of racial inclusivity—however unplanned—is not inconsequential. It is a cog in the larger machine of social injustice that makes police brutality such a common occurrence.

Let me start with a few numbers*:

In a state where more than a quarter of the population are Latinx, black and/or indigenous, fewer than 4 percent of AIA professionals are. While the number is slightly higher when you also factor in black/African American architects who are not AIA members—for a combined  total of a mere 17 according to The Directory of African American Architects—we’re more than a little behind the curve. We need more than 6 times the current amount of BIPOC in architecture for our profession to represent the public we serve. National demographics in architecture play out similarly, a fact that should surprise few in the field.

How does this matter in the broader fight against racial injustice? The answer is that the built environment—and the policies and practices behind its development—have been one of the systemic factors in cementing and reproducing deep racial inequities in policing, health, wealth and other factors. Architects have worked hand-in-glove with urban planners, developers and real estate professionals on mass projects of racial inequity, including redlining, de facto segregated suburban development, a massive and hugely unjust network of prisons, and the gentrification and displacement of low-income communities of color. BIPOC communities have had little to no influence in these projects due to the overwhelming whiteness of the built environment professions. While significant progress has been made from a time when representation was even more dismal than today, it’s worth asking how far we’ve really come since Civil Rights Movement leader Whitney Young, Jr. spoke at the 1968 AIA Convention. “You are not a profession that has distinguished itself by your social and civic contributions to the cause of civil rights, and I am sure this has not come to you as any shock. You are most distinguished by your thunderous silence and your complete irrelevance.”

Our demographics produce a huge blind spot when it comes to advancing racial justice in our otherwise progressive-leaning profession. There is no substitute for having black, indigenous and Latinx architects (and planners and developers) at the table to have a fighting chance of overcoming decades of planned and unplanned racist outcomes. That’s part of why I work on AIA Colorado’s Equity, Diversity and Inclusiveness Committee, to work with my fellow professionals on creating a profession that attracts, retains and supports architects of color. I believe architects sincerely want their profession to be much more inviting and empowering for BIPOC than it currently is. But it’s going to take serious commitment and hard work to get there, including examining our own unconscious biases and changing our workplace cultures.

The AIA has recently produced a fantastic resource: the Guides for Equitable Practice. If you want to do something about injustice in your own backyard, make reading these guides a priority of your professional development this year. Critically, the guides contain far more than dry policy details; they include actual voices of a diverse range of architecture professionals sharing their experiences in the field. These guides, developed by AIA’s Equity and the Future of Architecture Committee, are an indispensable toolkit for taking concrete steps toward more equitable architecture offices and a more equitable profession.

Year after year, architecture programs are graduating the most diverse classes this profession has ever seen. Thanks to the hard work of our educational institutions, the cohort of BIPOC architecture professionals is steadily growing. But we can’t thrive in the profession—and won’t recommend it to other architects of color—unless we find a culture where we feel supported in sharing our voice and creating the change we need to see in the built environment. We can’t increase sixfold the number of Colorado BIPOC architects overnight, but we can proactively make our firms and our profession welcoming and supportive and give architects of color a platform to help shape our society for the better.
*The Colorado Department of Regulatory affairs does not collect information about the race/ethnicity of licensed architects, so AIA Colorado statistics are one of the limited few offering a window into the profession’s demographics in the state.

About the Author

Larry Sykes

Larry Sykes, AIA, is owner of Sykes Projects. He is the former Co-Chair of the AIA Colorado Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (J.E.D.I.) Committee.

© AIA Colorado 2024
Skip to content