Many conversations about making architecture more diverse and inclusive, making it work better for more people, and making it more exciting and impactful begin with architecture school. The lessons taught, histories accepted and challenged, perspectives welcomed or rejected, and voices amplified or suppressed shape the future of the profession. But are architecture schools doing enough to improve diversity? It’s too little too slow, according to Chris Daemmrich, the architectural designer and advocate behind the Tu White School of Architecture, an evolving exploration of an anti-racist, queer, feminist agenda for an American architectural institution.
The Tu White School of Architecture isn’t an actual institution. It’s a work of satire taking the form of a website that discusses whiteness in the architecture industry, articulates the importance of diversity of race, gender identity, class, and experience in higher education, and proposes ways that an architecture school could change its policies and practices to affirm diversity and reject white supremacy. As architecture schools start up for the academic year, it’s also a reminder of the steep road ahead for achieving real diversity and inclusion in higher education.
“I see [the Tu White School of Architecture] first and foremost as a hopeful exercise for what a commitment to justice and equity could look like for an architectural institution,” says Daemmrich, who is based in New Orleans and works in a number of architectural organizations and non-profits in the city. “People talk often—particularly in the world I’m in—about justice and equity as a concept, but the words are divorced from the links with economic equity, racial equity, and gender equity. I wanted to take this opportunity to be specific and think about programs and policies or steps that could be taken by an institution.”
A number of questions animate the Tu White School of Architecture—like who creates our built environment and for whom are they creating it—but an angle that’s especially important for Daemmrich, who identifies as a cisgendered queer gay male, is: “What is an appropriate role for people in positions of racialized, gendered, and class privilege and power to play in creating a just and equitable architecture?”
“I think that it’s necessary to change institutions and that’s the job of white people who have lesser repercussions when speaking out against institutions to express some of these ideas,” he says.
Daemmrich grounds his speculative proposals—which are informed by the research and writing of activists and organizers who came before him—in the Tulane School of Architecture, from which he graduated and where he currently serves on an alumni council—but the suggestions are applicable to all schools. They include paying living wages to all employees, including facilities and maintenance staff; renaming buildings that are currently named after slave owners and constructing monuments to those who were enslaved; hiring at least four tenure-track professors by 2020 who identify as black, with no less than half of them also identifying women or non-binary; quadrupling the percentage of black undergraduate and graduate students so that representation is on-par with the general population, 13 percent; adding cultural history and theory to the curriculum so that architecture students are learning about their work in a social context; and establishing a “whiteness oversight council” composed of students, alumni, and faculty to ensure that the policies are carried out.
Daemmrich hopes the The Tu White School of Architecture brings greater attention and urgency to the call for more representation in academia, beyond tokenism. In a written comment to Curbed, a spokesperson for the Tulane Architecture School said they’re paying attention:
The Tulane School of Architecture is concerned about diversity and systematic discrimination within architecture as a whole. The school administration is actively engaging with Chris Daemmrich to discuss his concerns and has welcomed his input. As an alumni of the school and a member of our Alumni Council, he is in a position to help us drive change for the school and the profession.
For architecture as a whole to become more inclusive, institutions, like schools, will need to change.
“Architects have an ethical responsibility to create spaces that are not only safe, but also promote well-being—which can mean different things to different communities,” says Terry L. Allers, president of NCARB, the organization that oversees architectural certifications in the U.S. “To accomplish this, licensed practitioners must better reflect and understand the communities they serve. Since enrolling in an architecture program is often the first step to licensure, encouraging inclusivity on college campuses and beyond is paramount.”
According to NCARB’s most recent report on diversity in architecture, less than one in five newly licensed architects identify as a racial or ethnic minority and non-white candidates for architecture licenses are at least 25 percent more likely to stop pursuing licensure than white candidates. Women are enrolling in architecture schools at roughly the same rate as men, but only two out of five new architects are women.
What’s most effective for change, according to Shawhin Roudbari—a faculty member of CU Boulder’s Program in Environmental Design who studies activism in architecture—is organizing and radical forms of protest, like Daemmrich’s project, considering the depth of the problems. Statements about welcoming diversity and hiring only a few non-white faculty members aren’t enough.
“The problem is so much deeper, like pedagogy, curriculum, and even the fundamental scope and jurisdiction of architecture,” Roudbari says. “Architecture specifically is very much a discipline of the privileged minority. We’re studying rich white guys and their taste and culture and habits. That dominates the fundamentals of how architecture is taught. That makes it, in a way, an oppressive space. It’s hard to offer an Afrofuturist perspective when the teacher is [only] interested in Mies. And it goes deeper, even hegemonic. Architecture buys into this idea that our scope is working for wealthy clients.”
While the “resist” rhetoric of protests—like what we commonly see in marches—builds awareness, it doesn’t have enough carrying capacity for change, Roudbari, says: “The structural forces that keep the status quo intact are so much more powerful. They’re not phased by students expressing dissent through activism and advocacy.”
In the climate crisis era, moving away from the notion that architecture is reserved for the privileged few is more pressing than ever. We’ll have to decarbonize our buildings and neighborhoods and adapt our cities and infrastructure to become more resilient in the face of extreme weather. Dean Iñaki Alday, who joined Tulane’s architecture school in 2018, is embracing architecture as a mechanism to address social and environmental justice. In order to do that to the fullest degree possible, the school will have to adapt, too.
“You can disavow white supremacy but you need to dismantle white supremacy,” Daemmrich says. “Architects, and particularly white architects, need to do that and that should be a major architectural goal of our institutions. If we think about planning without thinking of white supremacy in climate change, we’ll design islands for white people and let black and brown people drown. [Dismantling white supremacy in architecture] comes from changing the profession so it’s a place for more black and brown people and women specifically, but also educating the white people already here about our obligations and the skills sets we need.”