Architecture's Diversity Problem

Architect Jeanne Gang's new tower, Aqua, stands in the center of Chicago with an attention-grabbing facade that appears to undulate like a wave reaching for the sky rather than the shore. It's a nice surprise to find that the critics have largely avoided drawing overly simplified parallels between the curvy construction and 44-year-old Gang's gender, conspicuous in a field where women are few and far between. Aqua, in fact, is the tallest skyscraper designed by a woman -- and a fairly young one at that.

Gang herself doesn't attribute the highly original style of Aqua to her sex, emphasizing instead how much she values design that truly does justice to the context and constituency. She told New Yorker architecture critic Paul Goldberger, "I like to do research about a place, about materials, and about a program." In other words, she cares whether the building serves the community in and around it, rather than whether it is another "fetishized object" that is beloved by critics but not by the people who use it every day. The Chicago Tribune praised Gang: "She has a gift for coaxing visual poetry out of the most prosaic materials."

Even though Gang's aesthetics aren't gendered, her commitment to high-design/low-ideology architecture has garnered a significant amount of media attention -- an indication of how badly her fresh perspective is needed. Her gender may not determine her design, but it undoubtedly influences her perspective on the profession. Certainly, the more diverse the nation's architects are, the more varied and exciting our cityscapes will be.

And architecture, let's face it, has a serious diversity problem. Statistics are hard to come by, but estimates indicate that 10 percent to 15 percent of the 110,000 registered architects in the United States are women, and about 1 percent to 2 percent are people of color.

There are many reasons for the homogeneity of the field; chief among them is the process required to become a registered architect, a mess of unexamined tradition and red tape. Apart from an accredited professional degree in architecture (which can cost upward of tens of thousands of dollars and take five to seven years to complete), anyone who wants to get licensed must jump through a series of hoops, which vary by state. This sort of bureaucratic and costly certification process -- in any profession -- tends to disproportionately affect people without economic resources, flexibility, and family or community support. Because of a lot of historical and systemic factors, the folks with those challenges tend to be women and people of color, though not exclusively, of course.

For example, Illinois, where Gang practices, requires an accredited degree, followed by completion of the Intern Development Program and Architect Registration Examination (ARE). IDP is promoted as a three-year program but takes an average of five years to complete. Salaries are greatly suppressed during the internship period -- making it difficult to pay off school debt or support a family. Further, the ARE is actually seven exams, costing nearly $1,500 total and taking an average of two years to complete -- a hardship for anyone without substantial economic resources and a flexible schedule (two conditions far less likely to be a reality for women with children, for example).

Like finance, architecture lacks a sturdy pipeline for these people. While enrollment in architecture schools is actually decently diverse, people of color and women drop out of the field at disproportionate rates. With a lack of mentors, a dearth of financial and professional support, and a dominant culture resistant to change, it takes a Herculean effort on the part of many aspiring architects just to get through the early years of their career.

Another factor keeping women and people of color from making it as architects is straight up sexism and racism in the workplace. Kathryn H. Anthony, author of Designing for Diversity: Gender, Race, and Ethnicity in the Architectural Profession , interviewed more than 400 architects nationwide and found that almost half of them had personally experienced either gender or race discrimination at the architecture firm where they worked.

Last year, around the time of its 150th anniversary, the American Institute of Architects published a toolkit for diversifying architecture firms. While certainly a step in the right direction, the kit is riddled with patronizing language, like an article titled, "What's In It for Me? The Business Case" -- as if diversity were an undue burden being imposed on white male architects. While various articles emphasize the ways in which diversity will enrich the field, it seems that the authors largely shy away from making a moral argument for fear of rocking the foundation of the profession.

The field of architecture is structured in such a way that it keeps the status quo -- white, economically privileged men -- firmly in place. Beyond being unjust, it makes our built environment less interesting, less inspiring. Metropolis Magazine reports that a lot of Gang's previous work has been built in what she calls "architecture deserts. … It correlates very closely with race. You can see how certain segments of the population are not even getting exposed to architecture. It's so crazy because architecture can really transform your life, especially if you experience it at a very early age."

There are certainly quality-of-life ailments and economic quagmires within the architecture profession that affect everyone -- the old boys included. But it's time that the total lack of diversity be positioned as one of the most important issues facing the future of architecture. At the end of the day, however, Gang's Aqua isn't exciting because it was designed by a woman. It is exciting because it's a feat of originality, beauty, and functionality -- the kind of design that only someone with Gang's specific sensibility and values could create for the world. If the field of architecture is to live up to its aspiration to transform the look of the world, it's going to have to transform the look of its own ranks first.