Is There a Black Architect in the House?

author: Theodore (Ted) Landsmark, Boston Architectural College
published: Aug. 7, 2012,   recorded: March 2007,   views: 2772

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“If there is any kind of profession that’s gotten away with a kind of benign neglect of diversifying itself over the course of last 30 years, it’s architecture,” says Ted Landsmark. With one chart after another, he plots the dismal record of design schools, firms and professional associations in modifying their singularly white profiles.

Of the 100 thousand licensed architects in the U.S. today, 1,571 are African American and 186 of these are African American women. In 2003, a mere 40 Masters students graduated. And more than 1/3rd of these graduates obtained their degrees from an historically black college or university. The rest of the schools offering architecture educations have graduated a few score of African Americans, compared to thousands of white students. “If we were to triple the number of African Americans who graduated from programs over the next decade,” says Landsmark, “we would still only be up to 10%.”

Why are law and business much more diversified professions than architecture?, queries Landsmark. He cites one argument that “smart black guys won’t choose to become architects because they can’t make as much money as lawyers.” But compensation levels are just fine, he notes, and “if people of color are too smart to go into the field, what’s wrong with all the white men who do?” The economic side is bogus. Instead, Landsmark notes that most black architecture graduates of historically black colleges opt to avoid the abuse of working for a firm and taking a licensing exam when they can go directly to work for HUD, or the Army Corps of Engineers. Landsmark also cites the patronage and class system involved in obtaining private work, which “determines who can survive in a field.” White social networks deprive African Americans of start-up opportunities and access to markets. There’s also a noticeable absence of black role models, and African Americans’ own orientation toward “community based work that is not celebrated by publications, schools or awards.”

At a time when there is a greater global need for designers, and when architectural firms are eager to tap into new markets, the nation can’t continue to ignore the African-American talent pool. Among other solutions, Landsmark suggests increasing public awareness of architecture, targeting young people. This might mean scholarships, or putting card tables out in front of Home Depots in communities of color. Architecture firms should invest in their black associates -- growing their careers and increasing their visibility, and establish mentoring programs. Radical steps must be taken, he says, “or someone else will stand here and use the same slides” 10 years from now.

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