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Diversity Slowly Increasing Within the Profession

April 25, 2007

By David Sokol

The complexion of America’s architects has been a subject of introspection and discussion since at least 1968, when Whitney Young, Jr., president of the National Urban League, chastised attendees at the AIA’s national convention for the scarcity of African-American and women practitioners.

That dialogue finally appears to be producing results. Kate Schwennsen, FAIA, the AIA’s second female president, just concluded her term; current president RK Stewart, FAIA, has expressed a fundamental commitment to expanding diversity; and Marshall Purnell, FAIA, will serve as the association’s first African-American president in 2008. Increases in diversity are not limited to the AIA’s leadership, but there have been few comprehensive studies. The research that does exist suggests a mixed record of success—particularly when it comes to licensure.

According to the AIA’s 2006 firm survey, women now comprise 26 percent of all architecture staffs, up from 20 percent in 1999. There are also more people of color, whose representation grew 7 percentage points to 16 percent. But these gains have not benefited all groups equally. Although the AIA’s firm survey did not track specific races, other indicators suggest that African-Americans, in particular, continue to be underrepresented.

Dennis Mann, co-director of the Directory of African-American Architects, says that his directory currently includes 1,578 licensed African-American architects. That figure accounts for 1.5 percent of all licensed professionals in the nation, a percentage virtually unchanged since Young’s powerful speech.

“There are approximately 1,200 African Americans in a professional degree architecture program in any one year. That hasn’t changed much,” Mann observes. By comparison, both he and Steven Lewis, president-elect of the National Organization of Minority Architects, say that anecdotal evidence indicates the number of Asian-American and East Indian students is on the rise.

The composition of architecture schools is a good predictor for how the profession as a whole will look in 20 years. The National Architectural Accrediting Board tracks some racial groups as well as the number of women, but the law firm Holland & Knight, who surveyed the profession as a whole in 2005, described these data as unreliable—making it difficult to draw any conclusions. Meanwhile, there is no definitive study of architecture practice among Hispanics, America’s fastest growing group.

One area that has been studied in some depth is licensure. Holland & Knight found that while 69 percent of white respondents said they were licensed or registered, only 45 to 48 percent of all other races said the same thing. A similar imbalance remains between men and women: Whereas 73 percent of male respondents said they were licensed or registered, only 45 percent of female respondents were.

Although people disagree about the importance of licensure, many observers side with Ted Landsmark, president of the Boston Architectural College, who stresses that obtaining a license sets in motion a domino effect to increase diversity. “If ever architects are to be perceived as leaders in the profession and rise to a place that a Marshall Purnell has achieved, it is because they are licensed practitioners with private, corporate, and government clients,” he explains. “Without that leadership, then there aren’t the role models who will attract other diverse people into the profession.”

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Curtis J. Moody, FAIA, whose firm Moody/Nolan is the largest African American–owned firm in the U.S., believes that a lack of role models currently is one possible explanation for the under-representation of licensed African-American architects. “If you’re the lone African-American in Harrisburg, you’re less likely to be mentored by an African-American who’s gone through it.”

For women, the obstacles to achieving licensure are different. Jane Weinzapfel, FAIA, co-founder of Leers Weinzapfel Associates Architects, in Boston [AIA 2007 Firm Award winner; RECORD, January 2007, page 20], notes that childrearing can present a roadblock. “Our mechanisms for licensure need to acknowledge that there can be a collision with life events,” she says.

For his part, Landsmark says that recognizing all forms of diversity is crucial for architecture’s ongoing viability. “A profession that continues to shrink in relation to the size and emerging diversity of the client base will result in a niche that has little relevance to the major environmental issues that lie ahead,” he observes.

 

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