Are we out of touch? Or out of time? A challenge of relevance

Another article from the most recent issue of The Architect, written by CODA Director, Kieran Wong:

In Perth, I think the great challenge of our time is the growth of our city, and how to make it more inclusive, denser through better designed infill and with higher community amenity. This is a vital and urgent conversation that architects need to be part of. So why are we struggling to get an influential seat at the table? How can our profession can maintain its relevance, its credibility and be responsive to the changing needs of society?  How can we influence the future of our cities?

I truly believe that design thinking and our skills as architects are an essential part of the mix in working on the complex problems that we face as a society. This includes the increasingly important challenge around infill and the densification of our city, but our experience at the front line of this reveals both community unease and a general ambivalence towards our profession.

When I speak to other architects there is a sense of frustration in the system (beyond the usual craziness of the “Utopia” TV show antics of working with any bureaucracy) of how our voices, our skills and our ability to synthesise, intuit and respond to the complex problems of our cities is ignored. Much has been written about this, and the hand-wringing is often pre-figured by a nostalgic gaze but we need to build a positive relationship with the future of our profession, and its ability to be useful, generous and (if needed) stealthy.

A few years ago I attended “Transform: Altering the Future of Architecture”,  an amazing pre-conference event prior to the national AIA conference in Melbourne.  Organized by Parlour, the discussions and the presentations were amongst the best I’ve seen at a conference of architects. One comment in particular stuck in my mind, confirming some of my long held suspicions. Karen Burns, Parlour co-founder, academic and researcher summarised the findings of the Parlour research, outlining the shocking disparity and inequity of our profession along gender lines. But at the end of her compelling slideshow, describing the equity challenge of women in senior roles, the long working hours culture, the lack of flexibility, the cliff of motherhood, and its disproportionate impact upon working women in the profession she said (and I paraphrase) “after all this research, and a career of looking at this problem as a feminist, I’ve started to think that this is less a problem of gender, and more a problem of class”.

Architecture as a profession is most certainly inequitable along lines of gender. The proportion of women in senior (equity-principal or director) positions in Australian practices is tiny. But the challenge of diversity, of equitable representation in our profession, is broad.  On so many levels we are failing to represent the communities we serve and it is possible that this is challenging our relevance.

A couple of years ago, Emma and I taught a design studio for Masters of Architecture students looking at the possible growth and infill of Perth transport corridors. These corridors are spread across the breadth of metropolitan Perth and previously identified as growth corridors by a joint project of the Greens and AUDRC .  The students were asked to research a corridor each, with a view to selecting a key site along its length. In our first session I asked the students to place a pin on a large map of Perth of where they lived. There was a tight cluster of pins in the western suburbs, one in Fremantle and one in Scarborough. Interestingly each student chose a site at the closest point to the CBD or western suburbs as their corridor would allow. No-one chose a fringe suburb, or a site on the outskirts. Was it that is was not relevant to them or do such flat suburban landscapes offer little in the way of architectural heroics? I was reminded of Karen Hitchcock’s memorable piece in The Monthly on medical students:

It’s hard to argue that the ideal medical workforce should be mono in culture, class and gender, which was what traditional (university) entrance requirements mostly got you. Come from the same place, hang out together every day for another five or six years, maybe get a few lectures on cultural diversity, and then flood the entire country.

The groups who are least represented in higher education – especially in medicine – are also those with the poorest health: people from low socio-economic backgrounds, and indigenous Australians. Two-tiered private/public everything doesn’t help. But when it comes to tertiary education, studies consistently show that one of the major barriers to these groups even applying is the perception that they do not belong there.1

Switch medicine to architecture, and “poor health” to “poor design” and she makes the point I am trying to make most eloquently. Like the study and practice of medicine, a lack of diversity in architecture is not a new issue (it has always been served by and for the middle classes) but given our seemingly constant worry about “where will architecture be in 15 years”? and “what is the future of practice?”, I wonder why more is not made of our lack of diversity, of gender, of race and of class as being one of the reasons we are falling out of view?

There is overwhelming research that shows there are inherent biases in groups that are singular in their composition and this creates a self-perpetuating cycle of rewarding and promoting others who are like them. We see this in research showing corporations who believe they reward on merit, in fact display the greatest levels of gender bias in promotion and have the biggest pool of (white) men at the top making the decisions. We like to support people who are like us, who think like us and look like us. They reflect our values, and confirm our suspicions of others as being less competent or less knowledgeable.

From a designer’s point of view this can make for a disastrous recipe – an inability to make good (broadly informed) decisions or understand complex problems, differing points of views and values that are part of the communities we work in. A profession that is not diverse or equitable in representation risks making decisions that reflect a very narrow view of the world, providing “answers” to “them” on the basis of our superior knowledge and competence.

We also face the risk that our skills and capabilities are ignored because (as well put by Sam Perversi-Brooks in his essay on Parlour 2) the work that we do has less and less relevance to more and more people.

Design skill and design thinking have never been so important to the challenges we face as a city, and so we must think through ways in which our profession and our people can become more reflective of the communities that we serve. Could it be through quotas in our universities? Or targeted scholarship or entry pathways for more diverse communities to enter our architecture programs? Practice plays a role of course, and we need better mentoring and support for architects of diverse backgrounds. Perhaps in practice we should institute HR policies that remove name, ethnicity and other identifying features from CV’s as part of our recruitment process? Sonia Sarangi’s sobering essay3 on Parlour quoted Alison Booth from the ANU Crawford School of public Policy whose research demonstrated:

To get as many interviews as an Anglo applicant with an Anglo-sounding name, an Indigenous person must submit 35 per cent more applications, a Chinese person must submit 68 per cent more applications, an Italian person must submit 12 per cent more applications, and a Middle Eastern person 64 per cent more applications.4

Architecture media needs to play a stronger role too, recognizing the often invisible work that good design thinking can do in our cities and communities that doesn’t result in a “hero shot” but perhaps in a more inclusive place for people.

The Institute’s Awards program and its own marketing of architecture could be considered in terms of this. If we were to place a pin on a map of Perth of award winning projects, like our design studio students, the clustering would be more intense around areas of privilege. We work for people like us, and we promote people like us, and thus the broader community thinks (quite rightly sometimes) that we are simply out of touch. We need to broaden and diversify the way we talk about architecture and the work that architects do.

There is no easy answer to this, but I do know that architecture must stay relevant to the community in the broadest possible terms if we are to have any hope of having a viable profession in the near future. Maybe if more types of people were architects our ability to maintain a relative level of influence, relevance and credibility would be more assured?

1.Karen Hitchcock, The Student Lottery, The Monthly July 2016

2. Class And Creed in Australian Architecture, Sam Perversi-Brooks


3. Sonia Sarangi, ‘Who’s afraid of ethnic diversity?’ July 14th, 2016

4. Alison Booth, ‘Job hunt success is all in a name’,The Canberra Times, 4 March, 2013