Selected Texts by AOC
Selected Texts about AOC
Tom Coward
Geoff Shearcroft
Both Similar and Different
Two weeks ago, CABE released a new report: Minority Ethnic Representation in the Built Environment Professions. This revealed that despite many students of BME origin taking built environment subjects, relatively few then enter a profession, while those who do often do not feel welcomed.

Last week, I contributed to London Metropolitan University’s annual ‘Aim Higher Young “Architects” Summer School’. For five days, a motley crue of sixteen year olds from across the country converged on the Holloway Road, participating in discussions and workshops exploring the built environment and their potential engagement with it. They responded with enthusiasm, openness and commitment to each challenge.

These two events got me thinking. It’s a shame that relatively few people I know will take an interest in that CABE report. In not doing so, they won’t just avoid a dose of stats and political correctness, but will miss out on the many rich social stories recounted therein. It’s also a shame that more people don’t have the experience of that workshop. Whether they become architects or not, participants gain the confidence and language to express opinions, and consider their influence, on the world surrounding them.

Why is this a shame? Because there is more at stake for architects at the moment than just making their practices representative in headcount. There are fundamental questions that architecture should be asking itself about what it is today, what it needs to be, and who it is for, in a culture that is increasingly experienced as diverse in more ways than just ethnicity.

Architecture has to take diversity seriously. This does not mean being blindly politically correct, and obediently meeting targets. True diversity is not just about engaging more BME people, or more women, although those are important issues. It requires commitment, by architectural practitioners, to diversity as a mindset: to really thinking about and engaging with difference.

My favourite definition of diversity is: “all the ways that human beings are both similar and different”.

No one we meet is completely different from us, just as they are never exactly the same. We may walk the same streets and live in the same buildings, but we are likely to understand and react to them very differently. As those making major insertions into that lived environment, it must be the architects’ task, and surely delight, to engage with that difference.

On the one hand, diversity in architecture needs to be addressed within the profession, opening up to people with a range of experiences, profiting from what they bring to the pot. London Met is interesting here. Not only are half its students non-white, but many are over 40, with previous lives as estate agents, youth workers, philosophers... The resulting quality of conversation is inspirationally different from some other architecture courses that my colleagues have taught on. It will be interesting to see how these generations of students influence the nature of professional practice.

On the other, diversity in architecture should be about looking outwards: actively seeking conversations with those of other influences. This does not mean observing and capturing samples of other lives like some Victorian butterfly collector, but being committed, project by project, to asking challenging questions, really listening to the answers, and then responding creatively, informed and inspired by other perspectives. My experience on housing estates – both executive suburban villas and inner city council blocks – is that given the chance, most people talk very intelligently about their environment and the way they live. But they don’t if you simply say: “Do you want a pitched roof or a flat one?”

July’s more newsworthy events have drawn positive attention, despite the tragedy, to the cultural diversity of our cities. There has been much discussion of what makes London, my city, great. Architects need to be a part of that conversation. Not just by studying the physical context of our environment, but by delving into the social context too. Taking risks: open themselves up, practically and psychologically, to the ever-evolving populace to which they also belong. This is not about understanding architecture, its hiring and building practices, as social engineering, but realising, and relishing, the fact that architecture is socially engaged whether it likes it or not.
Published by Daisy Froud
Building Design
29 July, 2006