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Why the Lack of Black Students?

RECORD speaks to architecture students about the field’s diversity problem.

By Jenna M. McKnight

Devanne Pena
Photo courtesy Devanne Pena
Devanne Pena, 23, graduated with a B.Arch. from North Carolina State University in May 2012. She now teaches high school architecture and engineering-drafting classes, while completing an intern program for licensing.

Growing up in Miami, Candace Hoskins was always drawn to the arts. Her interest deepened at Design and Architecture Senior High School, a premier magnet school with a diverse student body. But when Hoskins was admitted into the M.Arch. program at the University of South Florida (USF) in Tampa, she was the only African-American in her class of 40 students. “I definitely wish it was more integrated,” Hoskins says.

The problem is not unique to USF. Only 1,444, or 5.3 percent, of the 27,478 students in programs certified by the National Architectural Accrediting Board identify themselves as black or African-American. The numbers get much smaller as these aspiring architects climb the professional ladder: Of the 104,300 registered architects in the United States, roughly 1,860 of them—less than 2 percent—are black.

These numbers are similar to those in other professional degree programs, albeit somewhat lower. In 2010, 7.2 percent of first-year medical students were black, reports the Association of American Medical Colleges; numbers for black law students in 2008 were about the same, according to a study conducted by Conrad Johnson, a Columbia Law School professor.

When it comes to the dearth of black architecture students, there is no single culprit or simple solution. Various socioeconomic and historical factors contribute, ranging from high tuition costs to a scarcity of role models. Given the country's multicultural makeup, it's an issue that should concern everyone. “Because our work is in service to society, we should have professionals who reflect that diversity,” says architect Toni Griffin, head of the J. Max Bond Center at the City College of New York. “The more we embrace this, the richer our buildings, communities, and cities can be.”

A number of architecture schools offer scholarships for minority students and host programs, such as architecture summer camps, aimed at middle and high schoolers. “You have to reach them early on, so they're thinking about the right classes to take in high school,” notes Kathy Dixon, president of the National Organization of Minority Architects, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. Dixon, whose father is an architect, earned degrees from Howard University and UCLA. Today, she's one of only 290 or so black female architects in the country. “There are two strikes against you,” she says of her gender and race. “You have to be more determined and more focused. You can't let anyone deter you from your end goal. This is a difficult field.”

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Indeed, black students often don't gain the encouragement needed to pursue architecture. Devanne Pena, who recently earned a B.Arch., grew up in a low- to middle-income neighborhood in Fayetteville, North Carolina, in a single-parent household. As a child, she dreamed of becoming an architect, and during high school she was one of only two girls in her drafting class. She recalls asking her teacher if he thought she could get into MIT. “ 'Maybe as a maid,' ” he reportedly told her.

Pena ended up studying at North Carolina State University, an experience she describes as rewarding yet grueling—and at times demeaning. For her first project, she was asked to design a 50-foot cubic volume. “The only architecture I could think of was a little church,” she says. Strapped for cash, she made her model out of cardboard. “All my classmates always used basswood,” Pena says, “and when I'd ask them how much they spent on their projects, they'd say $100 to $200.” For that initial assignment, Pena received the first of many harsh critiques. “I always felt like I was behind,” she says. “Everyone's projects always looked better than mine—my classmates came from a different place.” To add to her discomfort, none of her professors was black.

Namdi Alexander
Photo courtesy Namdi Alexander
Namdi Alexander, is pursuing an M.Arch. at the University of Minnesota. He is also interning with the BKV Group in Minneapolis.

Historically, affluent white men have dominated the architecture profession. High educational costs and relatively low starting salaries have precluded many students of economically disadvantaged backgrounds from pursuing a design degree. “We're still recovering from generations of people who were disenfranchised, who didn't have the opportunity for an education,” says Namdi Alexander, an M.Arch. student at the University of Minnesota. To compound the problem, “being a nerdy architecture drafter guy doesn't fall into the spectrum of cool that most African-American kids grow up with,” he says. “The onus is on our culture and parents to alter the idea that hip-hop and basketball are the only viable career options.”

For those nerdy African-American drafters who do go on to architecture school, relationships can be tinged with racial undertones. A white professor with whom Alexander was on good terms said during a project critique that it appeared he was trying to please her rather than “find his own answer.” “She said, 'Is that what your parents taught you—to always please the white folk?' ” he recalls. He complained to a minority professor, and the other teacher, who was mortified, apologized. Still, “it was hard to wash the taste of something like that out of my mouth,” Alexander, who is 35, says. “I can handle it, but what if it was a younger guy or girl—would that be enough to derail them from their dream?”

Students may also be discouraged by the absence of African-American culture in most design curricula. “Throughout my architectural education, my own cultural history was absent,” said Mabel Wilson, a professor at Columbia University's Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, during a Black Studies in Art and Design Education conference held last year at Parsons the New School for Design. “It was all white Modernist boxes and Italian palazzos.”

One school that has taken steps to remedy this is the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), which offers a bachelor's degree in environmental design and next year will launch an architectural-design degree. Students can take classes such as “Africans in the New World,” which explores how Americans of African descent “responded aesthetically to the New World experience,” says noted scholar Leslie King-Hammond, founding director of MICA's Center for Race and Culture. The school also has a diversity board that closely examines how race and ethnicity are integrated into coursework and faculty-student relations. Often, professors have to “learn new things and expand their worldview,” says King-Hammond.

Maya Corin Madison
Photo courtesy Maya Corin Madison
Maya Corin Madison, 21, is in her fourth year at Syracuse University’s five-year B.Arch. program.

Many universities also give students hands-on experience in minority communities. The architecture school at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign—which graduated the first black architecture student, Walter Thomas Bailey, in 1904—has long done work in cities such as East St. Louis, Illinois, where blacks account for 98 percent of the population. In 2005, the University of Michigan started the Detroit Community Design Center, which offers free or low-cost design services to area nonprofits.

In some cases, black students are taking it upon themselves to shape a college experience that speaks to their culture. Maya Corin Madison, a B.Arch. student at Syracuse University and the daughter of two architects, is a member of the Society of Multicultural Architects and Designers. The student group works on projects around the city, hosts fundraisers, and tries to bring minority architects to the forefront. “The black architecture community is really close,” she says. “Whenever we have a guest lecturer who is a minority, not just black, we get excited.” That's not to say her sole inspiration comes from architects of color. Her favorite designers: “Frank Lloyd Wright, Bjarke Ingels, Corbusier, Mies,” she says. “I like the big architects.”

Jenna M. McKnight is Record’s former news editor and is now editor in chief of Architizer. Stephen Zacks, a New York City–based writer, contributed reporting to this story.

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