When I sat down to watch Rosa Sheng’s Ted Talk in Philadelphia, I was struck by how long ago this discussion had happened. The version I watched on Youtube was uploaded in 2015, six years ago. Besides the obvious comments on time feeling immaterial these days, the six-year gap between this video’s publishing date and my viewing date forced me to question the state of equity in the architecture field. I started to look into the initiatives Sheng discussed, including the survey her team produced. The results were unsurprising.

TedTalk for Architects Equity in Architecture by Rosa Sheng, TEDxPhiladelphia - Sheet1
©TedxTalk Youtube

What’s Happened Since?

Let’s talk about where we are now. Over the last summer, many large firms announced their support for marginalized groups. Some outlined relatively milquetoast corporate lingo defining their efforts as an attempt to show an acknowledgment of the issues in the field. It was not until last December that we reached a total of 500 Black women licensed architects

The initiatives Rosa Sheng discussed in her lecture are certainly continued, especially with new organizations popping up. There are individual collectives and organizations like NOMA, archsowhite, Beyond The Built, and Madame Architect who have been working on Instagram to defend and advocate for an increased minority population in the workspace. 

So, we’ve had six years of the same. We’ve had six years of less public representation. What has been more gripping than Architect Barbie? How have subverted the system more than Denise Scott Brown going up against Pritzker? Actually, I guess we should be happy that in 2020, Pritzker awarded two women the award, a step up from their previous ignorance. 

This now puts the total of women at seven (as I count Denise Scott Brown, whether or not they do). I recommend ignoring the fact that only one woman has ever won by herself, and four have won on male-dominated teams. 

TedTalk for Architects Equity in Architecture by Rosa Sheng, TEDxPhiladelphia - Sheet2
©ArchDaily

What is Equity?

The reality of the 14-inch thick glass ceiling in architecture, especially regarding licensure, is reinforced by Sheng’s articulate video. Any woman watching probably recognizes the sentiments she expresses. The video is strengthened because not only women could relate; BIPOC finds it hard to get a seat at the table, as well. Not that the Pritzker Prize is the only indicator of talent in architecture, but no Black person has ever won the award. 

Rosa Sheng shares a story of an influential white man who acted as an ally for her. Likely nothing more than a passing memory for him, Sheng was not only invited to the table, but accommodations were made to fully include her. This story is important for anyone who wants to be a better ally; everyone deserves a seat at the table and while we can all work for our place there, it is just as important to be invited and have your needs met. 

That’s what equity is all about. While everyone might have a seat, it might not be the seat you need. It might not be tall enough, or wide enough. Maybe you don’t need a seat, but just a space. Maybe you need more than one seat. Maybe it isn’t suited for your back. Equity in architecture, a field that can design chairs and tables however we see fit, is important not just for designers but for the people impacted by our designs. 

While I’ve let this metaphor run away a bit, we need to remember that architects design for numerous communities. Communities they aren’t necessarily in. When equity is ignored in design, users are left out by sheer ignorance. Lack of diversity and equity stagnates design.

TedTalk for Architects Equity in Architecture by Rosa Sheng, TEDxPhiladelphia - Sheet3
©flickr

What Comes Next?

So what do we do for the next six years? Well, as a student starting the future of her licensure down the barrel, I’d advocate for an easier licensure process. NCARB states that the licensure process has dropped in 2015, but remains unchanged. Why is that? Why does it take approximately 12 years to gain your license? We should examine how the process can be made more equitable in designer’s lives. 

But that is a lofty, very nuanced discussion. That idea cannot be driven by a college student without it coming across as lazy or undetermined. So the more immediate and easier option is to invite more people to your table. 

If you are in a position to do so, invite more women and BIPOC designers. Invite younger designers. And meet them where they are. Let them bring the chairs they need or better yet, provide them with a chair that meets their needs. Stop announcing DEI task forces and lectures and just hire a diverse range of people. Stop the statement of solidarity and take action. In a field that allows you to design the best possible world, we cannot continue to leave people out. 

But those ideas are for people who are ready to take action to diversify architecture. If this is all somehow new to you, first, start by watching Rosa Sheng’s Ted Talk on Youtube. Then start listening to the minority designers around you. Listen to the assistance they are asking for. Invite them to the table and accommodate them however you can.

Author

Nia Smith is an architecture student at Howard University. She uses her background in fashion to design spaces that are useful and beautiful. As an environmental advocate, Nia focuses on low-income housing made sustainably with circular design theories.

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