In a recent ATTN: article, Why We Need More Women Designing Buildings, author Ashley Nicole Black highlights the good that would come from more women and people of color entering and climbing the ranks of the architecture profession. She also discusses the systemic hurdles that prevent that from happening. As an undergraduate student who found himself grateful that he’d chosen to major in urban studies instead of architecture each time he stepped to a cash register with architecture studio materials in hand, I can attest to such factors as the high cost of studio requirements pushing low-income students, who are disproportionately students of color (like myself), away from the field. In her article, Black outlines the increasing difficulties of remaining in the profession as a woman or as a person of color as one climbs higher and higher in the field. She argues that this lack of accessibility hurts architectural output and thus hurts people who interact with architecture (all of us). This all begs the question, what is architecture’s role in diversifying the field and its works?
Notably, the project that Black points to as exemplifying the benefits of diversifying the field is the city of Vienna, Austria, written up in the City Lab article, How to Design a City for Women, is designed not by a single architect who has risen through architectural ranks despite systemic oppression, but through a process of seeking the direct input of the diverse multitude actually using the final product. No doubt, the scarcity of non-white, non-male representation at architecture firms is a huge problem; it is, however, a problem with much deeper roots, a problem likely too big, too systemic for architects to solve alone. More immediately, looking to Vienna’s women-conscious design, architecture must shift its practice to shift the trends of minority inaccessibility in its output. The problem with architecture’s lack of diversity lies in how architecture, plans, and designs are often imposed upon people rather than constructed with significant input from those people. Ron Shiffman, co-author of Building Together: Case Studies in Participatory Planning and Community Building, says of his career in working with community members to meet their needs and their wants in the project that will ultimately be theirs: “It often meant abandoning one’s self-interest, acknowledging biases and sublimating personal and institutional egos.”
In this book, he and Roger Katan, also a veteran of participatory planning, provide case studies of their work, showing readers how architects, planners, officials, and community members can join forces in building up communities. Diversity at the professional level is powerful (architect Deanna Van Buren has an exceptional blog post on this—Changing the Face of Architecture), but will only be made more powerful accompanied by a diversity at the participatory level that reflects the diversity of every project’s stakeholders. Katan and Shiffman set their egos aside in order to use their privilege and positions to give power to those voices often ignored in the design process. The results are both inclusive and compelling; they even begin to chip away at the underlying systems keeping minorities away from top spots in the profession. As Black writes in her ATTN article, “The way spaces are built shapes the experiences we have in and around those spaces. Imagine the types of experiences we could have in and around buildings built by people who have had diverse experiences.” Participatory planning is one of the strongest tools we have for making this imagination a reality.