Lack of Diversity Limits Architecture

Denise Scott Brown has asked to be recognized as a Pritzker laureate alongside her partner, Robert Venturi.
Frank Hanswijk / Venturi Scott Brown & Associates

Much has been made in recent weeks about the petition led by students at the Harvard Graduate School of Design to add Denise Scott Brown’s name to the Pritzker prize, which her husband Robert Venturi won in 1991. I agree, she should certainly be added. There is no question that she is just as deserving as her partner and co-principal at Venturi Scott Brown.

Looking beyond this snub, the omission is a true reminder of the lack of diversity among Pritzker winners. Since its inception in 1979, the prize has gone to only two females (Zaha Hadid and Kazuyo Sejima). But the bigger problem is not with the Pritzker, it’s with architecture itself. Despite its generally liberal bent, it’s very hard to find a less diverse profession.

The ratio of minority architects in the U.S. has for some time hovered around 1 to 2 percent. And while there are certainly more women architects than a generation ago, the total numbers are still pretty sad. The AIA shows that only about 15 percent of licensed architects are women.

The reasons for this ridiculous imbalance have been well documented: high skill, low (and in the case if interns, sometimes no) pay jobs keep out all but the affluent; crazy hours drive away those who need to balance work and life; high tuition and lack of scholarships and minority recruitment keep most schools homogeneous; the registration process is hopelessly outdated to weed out those without resources; and, of course, the fact that those out of the club often feel isolated only perpetuates the problem.

The powers that be in architecture have been trying for years to remedy the problem. The AIA recently instituted, for instance, a diversity action plan, assessing the problem, forming a council, and suggesting smart solutions like having schools accept more community college credits, collaborating on scholarships, working with human resources departments to encourage diversity, flexible hours, and maternity/paternity leave, and “celebrating the achievements of under-represented architects” through awards programs.

Some initial statistics look promising. Scholarships have increased in recent years, for instance, and the rate of female architects keeps climbing. But to truly make a dent in this problem so much more needs to be done. To encourage more women and minorities to stay, the profession needs to address isolation with more mentoring programs and a better support system. It needs to better address some of the work/life imbalances that are, frankly, a bit ridiculous for any sex. And, of course, the AIA, and firms themselves, need to work harder to make sure architects are paid fairly for the work they do.

More than anything, the culture of architecture needs to change. Not just because it’s the right thing to do. But in order to be a truly relevant profession, architecture—a field often aloof from the community it serves—needs to better represent that community. It needs a greater diversity of views, perspectives, and ideas.

Yes, the Pritzker jury needs to consider more women and minorities. Obviously. But the profession also needs to foster their development so there will be an even greater talent pool to choose from.

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