clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

16 architects of color speak out about the industry's race problem

“America has a lot of work to do”

Long before a divisive presidential election proved race and creed remain flashpoints in American society, issues of racial representation had leapt to the fore in a number of industries. As the American Institute of Architects turns 160, the profession still has progress to make toward the goal of true inclusiveness.

In order to gauge just what it’s like for designers of color working today, we talked to 16 architects—from young designers who’ve recently founded their own businesses to established players with high-profile projects under their belts—about the race-related challenges they have faced over the course of their careers.

They told us about the pioneers, renowned and unheralded alike, who served as sources of inspiration, and how they forged paths for themselves where there were no trailblazers lighting the way.

Perhaps most crucially, each offered advice about how the profession can break down barriers to entry for people of all backgrounds, and explained why this matters.

Though this package began to take shape well before Donald Trump entered the Oval Office, these conversations took on a new urgency in the wake of our new president’s policies. Many of the architects we spoke to were quick to speak out against Trump, noting that he stands in direct contrast to the changes they hope to see in the industry—and the country.

Interviews have been edited and condensed.

“Start your own firm, change the rules of the game,” says Vishaan Chakrabarti, who launched his own practice in 2015. “The profession has a kind of monastic sensibility about who an architect is supposed to be and how architecture firms are supposed to run.” Project: Conceptual rendering for Penn Station, New York, New York.
Portrait: Andre Wagner; Project: Courtesy of PAU

Vishaan Chakrabarti

Founder, PAU; associate professor of practice at Columbia GSAPP

Since this election, the world has only heard two major statements from the architecture world: [the American Institute of Architects executive vice president’s statement that the AIA is “committed to working with” Trump and Zaha Hadid Architects principal Patrik Schumacher’s pro-privatization speech].

The most craven instincts drove these statements, and they are to be repudiated. They are completely at odds with the fundamentally progressive mission that architecture not only represents, but that virtually every student and faculty member that I know in architecture espouses.

Leadership in the field has to be way more diverse. We need to see a complete sea change in who is running this profession. Because it isn't just about the diversity of identity politics; it's about the work that architects create and how they impact the cities in which they work.

To channel President Obama, this is about creating a more perfect union. It isn't just about whether people are accepting of immigrants; it's about whether there is truly equal opportunity based on merit. In our field that is clearly still not the case. It is still imperative upon all of us to create that dialogue and make it better.

When Roberta Washington launched her firm in 1983, it was one of the first African-American, woman-owned architectural firms in the country. “For the most part, the employees of my firm have been people of color. Because my firm is in Harlem, I had problems recruiting white folks until Harlem became hip.” Project: 1400 Fifth Avenue, New York, New York. Associate Architect, Williams Brothers.
Portrait: Andre Wagner; Project: Chuck Choi

Roberta Washington

Founder, Roberta Washington Architects, PC

If you are black and female, then you already know that you belong to a group that, in the eyes of some, has a demeaned spot in history. But if there's something that you want to do, you just look past it. I've encountered racism and sexism, but to succeed, I can't focus solely on that.

At the same time, I think there are places—whether it's women in architecture groups or the National Organization of Minority Architects—where you can turn for support and talk about how others did it.

In this profession, you always are looking for inspiration. That’s part of the reason I'm interested in the history of African Americans in architecture and the history of women in architecture in this country. When you look at others, you can see the strength in them.

Sometimes, I get calls or emails from young black women who are in the field or trying to get into the field, and who are so discouraged because it seems that there is nothing there for them. They want to hear from me because they think that since I've gone through it, I have something to say.

I try to be supportive, but I don't think that their chances are necessarily better. That's the sad part. But I think that knowing that there are people who've come before them who had similar challenges and survived and made the best of it—sometimes, that helps.

“Architecture has an enormous power for positive impact, but the profession has lost touch with that,” says Alfonso Medina, a 2013 Curbed Young Gun. Project: HDJ 89, Tijuana, Mexico.
Portrait: Andre Wagner; Project: Fran Parente

Alfonso Medina

Founder, T38 Studio

I've always seen being a minority as a huge advantage. There are, especially right now, after the election and the letter that the AIA sent to Trump, all of these issues that have arose about race and architecture. It is a profession that is very white. There is not a lot of race or gender equality. I read that it's one of the least inclusive professions.

But if you're an architect and you're from a minority, it has a huge advantage: In the end, you are unique. You grew up with a different background, a different culture, and it's something that has to really affect how you practice architecture.

There are so many aspects to the practice of architecture; it's not just designing a building. It's also understanding how communities work and how master planning can have an impact in the lives of so many people. And when people are from different backgrounds, they are the ones who really understand how their communities work, and how they could make them better.

“I was often the first black person hired by an office or the only black person in an office,” says Mabel O. Wilson on the race-related challenges she faced. “There's always this nagging sense that you'll rarely see black clients. You're rarely going to see anything of your own cultural experience reflected. It's like looking in a mirror, but being invisible.”
Portrait: Courtesy of Mabel O. Wilson; Avery Hall, home to Columbia's Graduate School of Architecture, Preservation, and Planning: Thomas Noble/Flickr

Mabel O. Wilson

Founder & principal, Studio &; professor, Columbia GSAPP

As I became more interested in theory and questions around race and my own background and family history, I kept thinking, "Well, why isn't my experience in the [architecture] narrative?"

I have an undergraduate education in architecture as well, and I never saw anything about work by black architects or architecture about black people unless it was traditional African architecture or the pyramids in Egypt. That's as far as it went.

The content of what I was learning was very Eurocentric—the histories, the methodologies, all of the references. You're in this space of whiteness; my critical questioning came about through a kind of absence of representation.

If we don't change the body of knowledge, then people will always have that same reaction. You have to change the terms for it to have a profound effect.

Race in modern architecture is not about being inclusive. It's about questioning racial concepts, how we think racially, how that is embedded in the very things, the tools, the discourse through which we learn and understand architecture.

The discourse impacts how people, once they're admitted to an institution, learn the discipline. Because that discipline is already racialized to the point where you're alienated. It's just like questions around gender. If you don't already see how patriarchy and misogyny are embedded in the ways in which people write and think, bringing women to it isn't going to change it. You have to fundamentally do both.

“I've come to realize as I get older that's the greatest challenge: to find your own voice, and to know when to not listen to and not follow the status quo,” says Chris Leong (left), who co-founded the design studio Leong Leong with his brother Dominic (right). Project: Past Futures, Present, Futures, Storefront for Art and Architecture, New York.
Portrait: Andre Wagner; Project: Naho Kubota

Chris Leong

Founder, Leong Leong

The institutions that govern our society, or play a role in shaping it, should be reflective of our society. And I think that's not the case. That's one of the challenges that we're all confronting, especially with this recent election and with the new president.

There need to be more initiatives that are actually outwardly looking to reshape what diversity is. I think you get more of this stuff happening now. SCI-Arc recently announced its spring lecture series, and every person on there is a male architect. That gets called out now. Everything that gets composed needs to have that thought: Is this being reflective? Is there diversity at my conference table with this committee? Is there diversity on this lecture panel? Who are we speaking to, and who are the people that are speaking? Maybe that's subtly shifting. But I think that's where it starts.

Race is a challenge that I face personally. I think it's a challenge of responsibility and awareness about my role and what's happening, too, within our society, within our country. I think the problem with race in the United States never goes away.

“I sought out my teaching position because I know that there are probably other students who like me were looking for someone that could relate to them, and who needed someone to speak so they wouldn't feel isolated,” says 2015 Curbed Young Gun Germane Barnes. Project: The Arts & Recreation Center (ARC), Opa-locka, Florida.
Portrait: Scott McIntyre; Project: Courtesy of Germane Barnes

Germane Barnes

Designer in residence, Opa Locka Community Development Corporation; lecturer, University of Miami School of Architecture

We need to get arts programming back into schools. A lot of schools that teach people of color don't have the resources to teach architectural or art courses. But that's how I got started: My first couple jobs were as a painter, an artist, and photographer. How can someone reach their full potential or be exposed to new things if they don't even have it in their classrooms?

What often happens is the people who have access to money are the ones who continue to get pushed forward. Architecture in itself is an extremely strenuous major that takes up a lot of time, and most people of color have to work.

If I already have to spend 20 hours a week bussing tables so I can actually afford to go to school, and on top of that I have to be in studio for 40 hours a week plus all my other courses, how am I supposed to succeed? Increasing scholarships to people of color is very important.

If you're a person of color, it's part of your duty to be able to be there and be that ear for someone whether you want to or not. We can't increase the numbers unless we all do our part. I can't say it's a white male profession and then not try to help recruit. It's counterintuitive. At the same time, it shouldn't solely be my responsibility as a person of color; it should be something that holistically the profession tries to address.

Suchi Reddy says that “diversity wasn't in [her] vocabulary” when she was starting out. “I just didn't think about it that way until it actually became clear that that was the operating principle that then I had to look out for.” Project: Conceptual rendering for The Women’s Building, New York, New York.
Portrait: Andre Wagner; Project: Mike Robitz

Suchi Reddy

Founding principal, Reddymade Architecture & Design

I never really knew what racism was until I came to this country, because in India, we have different kinds of prejudice. When I came here, I was completely blind to it. I remember during my first two internships, I would finish all my tasks really well, and they would be very happy with everything I did, but I never got the tasks that the white men got.

When it dawned on me that that actually was what was happening, it was a huge revelation. It defined the issue for me as a real thing. The first thing you overcome is the gender bias, and then the racial questions come.

If you're a woman, you have to prove that you know what you know. The tendency to dismiss you or call you a decorator is very, very strong.

For me, that's certainly been more difficult than the racial thing. There will be clients who say, "Oh, she's not afraid to mouth off and say what she thinks." That would never be said to a man.

It's pervasive. People don't even know they're doing it, but hopefully there is a generation coming up that's bred out of this. I don't think there is that much malice in it; I think it's very much a residue of being unaware and having bad habits, and not having to pay the price for it. And if we elect a pussy grabber as a president...

“There's a huge social justice movement going on in communities across the country, and I believe architecture plays a significant role in that. Architecture's beyond the brick and mortar. It is the incubator of culture. It's the place and space where things transpire.” Project: Conceptual rendering of Universal Hip-Hop Museum, Bronx, New York.
Portrait + Project: Courtesy of Michael Ford

Michael Ford

Founder, Brandnu Design

I see hip-hop as having this ability to critique architecture in ways that other cultures can't because it has thrived despite the failures of architecture [the genre originated in housing projects in the Bronx].

The entire [hip-hop] culture is a critique of failed urban planning and architecture, so who better to now come and try to solve some of those issues than the hip-hop community? Now that you have individuals, such as myself, who went through the traditional architectural educational process, and also grew up in some of these failed areas, we have an opportunity to help solve some of the mistakes of modernism made in urban cities.

When stylistic approaches are applied in different regions, different cities, different states, it restricts the opportunity to create specific vernaculars that speak directly to the people in those communities. Those cookie-cutter approaches—take housing projects, these tall mountainous towers—are directly related to the destruction of African-American communities.

The profession needs to accept this idea that a lot of minorities might not follow some of these stylistic approaches of the past because those approaches have a direct relationship to significant traumas. Architectural curriculum is based on these stylistic approaches, which creates additional problems for new ideas and new concepts.

“I can't really picture any Asian-American role models growing up or even really now—certainly not in architecture,” says Dong-Ping Wong, one of the co-founders of Family New York, a 2015 Curbed Groundbreaker. Project: OFF-WHITE HONG KONG, Hong Kong.
Portrait: Andre Wagner; Project: Courtesy of Family New York

Dong-Ping Wong

Co-founder, Family New York

I think my experience is not that dissimilar to a lot of Asian Americans, where we're not really facing explicit racism all the time. We're not fighting against stuff that often. There might be undercurrents of stereotypes all the time, but there's nothing that we have to develop any kind of force toward.

I feel like the black experience in the U.S., and now that of a lot of immigrants, is different. You do have to fight for your freedom and your rights. I think the Asian side, in a way, doesn’t have that, which means that we didn't really develop as strong of a voice.

I don't really know what the personality of the “Asian architect” is besides the stereotype of being technical.

So I'm always very excited when Asians pick up leadership positions [in architecture]. Not necessarily when they are promoted to a leadership position, but actually when they are vocal, loud, unapologetic, and are actually fighting for something. It's still relatively rare, but it's changing. There's a generation that's speaking out.

We even started a pseudo club—which, it's not really a club, because we only met once. I just wanted to get Asian architects who were running their own firms to meet every once in a while.

“I often have meetings where I walk into a room and I’m the only woman at the table,” says Jing Liu, co-founder of Brooklyn-based SO-IL, a 2016 Curbed Groundbreaker. Project: Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art, Davis, California.
Portrait: Andre Wagner; Project: Iwan Baan

Jing Liu

Co-founder, SO-IL

It’s a tough profession. You have to put in a lot of dedication. And on top of that, you have to put a lot of extra energy into dealing with the fact that you’re often alone in your perspective. It’s just harder in the long run for a lot of women [and being the only woman who is Asian in a room adds another layer of complexity].

I feel a lot of that even after Trump’s election. It’s getting harder. I think people have a little bit less faith in the progression of our society. You feel the bigotry. If someone like that wins, maybe our world and values should be reevaluated.

I have had clients suggest that maybe we should have a white male on staff to represent our projects, for example, because their boss might feel like a white male would take it more seriously, which is obviously a ridiculous idea—that Asian women can’t take a project seriously.

There are many instances when you feel like those thoughts are in their minds. You just have to ignore it and keep going. If there are more and more of us in the profession, the perspective will change.

I think it’s just about sticking around and believing that we can keep transforming our profession to be more diverse, [in terms of gender], racially, and culturally. The sheer mass will change the conversation. It’s not that a point can only be made with words. Like Madonna says, “just sticking around.”

“We have a distinction as African-American architects that we are different and we bring something different to the table,” says Phil Freelon. Project: The Center for Civil and Human Rights Museum, Atlanta, Georgia.
Portrait: Peter Hoffman; Project: Albert Vecerka

Phil Freelon

Managing director and design director, Perkins+Will’s North Carolina practice

I have experienced and observed [instances] of discrimination and inequity at every level in the industry.... There are moments that are quite blatant, and there are the unintentional consequences of the economic strata in this country.

Take academia, for example. Say you have an African-American student coming [into architecture school] who is starting with a subpar high school education as a consequence of where they grew up. You're starting at a [disadvantage] to begin with, and it's a rigorous curriculum. There may not be a mentor or another student who has been through [a similar experience] and can help guide you. You feel kind of isolated.

Looking at people like Paul Williams and Julian Abele was a tremendous inspiration to me when I was younger. I said to myself, “Here I am in the ’70s and the Civil Rights era is in full swing, but these folks were in the ‘20s, ‘30s, and ‘40s doing incredible work under circumstances that were a lot more difficult.” Just to know that was possible was really a boost to my thinking about what I could do.

“I'd give the same advice to anybody: Your voice really matters,” says Nadine Maleh, a 2016 Curbed Groundbreaker. “Don’t let the naysayers get you down.” Project: A unit at the men’s lodging house on the Bowery, New York, New York.
Portrait: Ball & Albanese; Project: Courtesy of Nadine Maleh

Nadine Maleh

Executive director, Institute for Public Architecture

It starts within our education: to say that we actually need a diverse voice in architecture because clients are diverse, cities are diverse. That perspective is necessary in order for buildings and neighborhoods to be designed responsibly. Because people come with a whole host of backgrounds, and that background is expertise that can be and should be translated into their designs.

I think it's opening the doors to say, look, your voice is really important in this profession and you should pursue it. Showing people that they have a choice and the opportunity, I think that's the biggest hurdle for people to understand that design plays a role in all aspects of the development of our neighborhoods and our cities. In order to develop responsibly, we need a very diverse group of designers doing that work.

“Architects are glamorized in the media as being these incredibly wealthy affluent individuals,” says Juan Gabriel Moreno. “One of my greatest concerns for the profession is that most people don't feel like architects are tangible.” Moreno was named a 2016 Curbed Groundbreaker. Project: Northeaster Illinois University El Centro, Chicago, Illinois.
Portrait: Kevin Miyazaki; Project: Courtesy of JGMA

Juan Gabriel Moreno

Founder, JGMA

I've worked on projects all over the world, but the day I opened my office, because my name is Juan Gabriel Moreno, all of a sudden I was put into this category: "Oh, he's a Latino architect." No, I'm an architect who happens to be Latino.

I got phone calls in the early days from firms that I previously partnered with, but now that I was out on my own, they would call me and say, "Hey, we got this project. We have to meet a minority requirement. What if we put you on to do interiors. You can do the bathroom design."

That was the first time I really felt marginalized. It left a lasting mark on not just me, but on how I wanted to be perceived. I will always want people to appreciate my talent as an architect, and I leave the celebration of my heritage up to me.

It was one of the most condescending moments that I ever encountered. I said, "I think you need to find another architect, and you really need to think about what true collaboration means and why there even is a requirement for minority- and women-owned participation."

“Make the profession what you want it to be,” says Yolande Daniels when asked if she has advices for young architects of color. “I know that's not easy but there are areas in architecture where you can explore exactly what you want to.” Project: Museum of Contemporary African Diaspora Art, Brooklyn, New York.
Portrait: Andre Wagner; Project: Frank Oudeman

Yolande Daniels

Founding principal, Studio SUMO

The initial doors that opened [after I started Studio SUMO with Sunil Bald] had to do with the work that we were already doing. Our initial work was inspired by "What can we do ourselves?" We can't build a building ourselves, but we could make a table...

That was how we dealt with the roadblock of being young, without experience, and not having a lot of money. Both my partner and I taught continually as we worked on our practice, and I think that teaching itself opens doors.

One of the reasons I went into architecture was because I wanted to make a difference in the built world. I wanted to change the way things looked and felt. This is something I see from students now. With climate change and all of the other issues that people are taking on—it's a concern. I think it's a really interesting time to be in the profession.

“It can be a profession that eats its young,” says Mark Gardner of the architecture industry. He believes a dedicated support system is integral for recruiting and retaining young architects of color. Project: Marc Jacobs, Tokyo.
Portrait: Andre Wagner; Project: Courtesy of Jaklitsch/Gardner Architects PC

Mark Gardner

Principal, Jaklitsch / Gardner Architects

I think we have to focus on kids, especially students; young people of color. It’s like when Obama became president: If you don't see it, you have trouble imagining yourself being it.

Imagine growing up in an area where you've never seen an architect who looked like you, and you think, "Do we do that?" It's really important to try to catch students early.

Then, once you get students in, retaining them is difficult, especially the students of color, if they don't have a support system around them. They might really be the minority with few other students of color studying in their field. It's something we take for granted because you think, "Eh, it's not big deal; they're in school with other people."

You have to go places where you might be the only one in the room who looks like you. That's not a bad thing, but it's a tough thing.

I'd like to say it gets easier, but it doesn’t, really. Not for me. My wife and I have this game where we'll count. She'll be like, "Three." And I'll be like, "Oh yeah. I saw them at the door."

For a lot of young designers starting out in their careers, there is a lot of anxiety that people feel that they don’t know enough, but I think the truth of the matter is that a lot of people don’t know a lot of things,” says Eric Tan. “Have the courage to push through.” Project: Conceptual Rendering for Winthrop Square, Boston, Massachusetts.
Portrait: Andre Wagner; Project: Courtesy of Handel Architects

Eric Tan

Associate, Handel Architects

For a lot of designers and architects starting out, we often have to take very low-paying or unpaid internships. But if you don’t come from a privileged background, you can’t afford to do that.

How can you ask a kid from a minority background whose family doesn’t make that much—and the kid probably has $50,000 to $100,000 in loans—to take a long, unpaid internship? That’s a very unfair thing. In order to improve diversity, they have to completely make unpaid internships against the law.

I think that the greatest thing to happen to diversity was the advent of the internet. If you have a good idea, if you have a good project, don’t wait until somebody gives you an opportunity to take it out there—use the internet as a tool. Don’t wait for people to hand things to you, because you will wait for a very long time.


How can architecture schools increase diversity?


Why the scale figures in architectural images need to be more diverse


Scholarships and career resources for architects of color