Relegated to the Margins

Kemba Mazloomian graduated from the University of Michigan in 1997 with a master's degree in architecture and now works as an editor in Chicago. “I worked in office after office where my white male co-workers, and even the clients we worked for, questioned my competence, rechecked my calculations, [and] dismissed my relevance on projects,” she recalls in an e-mail. Her colleagues, Mazloomian says, “engaged in such a systemic campaign of emotional sabotage, that I invariably would seek work at another office—only to find that the office had changed but the dynamic remained the same.”

Prigmore, a project manager at HDR Architecture in Alexandria, Va., still has moments when she feels marginalized. At last year's American Institute of Architects (AIA) convention in Los Angeles, she remembers, “I asked one of the booth attendants for information on where to get my registration packet. Without asking any questions, she immediately directed me toward the exhibitors' registration booth.”

Prigmore was redirected back to the same area and returned to the booth she had visited. The attendant “was pretty embarrassed to find out I was both a speaker and a fellow,” she says.

In a career spanning more than 35 years, Sharon Sutton, 65, who teaches architecture at the University of Washington, has encountered setbacks she blames on institutional resistance to diversity. “I got a Ph.D. [in psychology, in 1982] because I figured if I was overqualified, I would be able to take a leadership position,” she explains. “I haven't. Forget being director or dean of a school. I've begun saying, ‘The boys ain't ready. They just ain't ready.'”

Not everyone agrees that black women architects are at a disadvantage. “I can remember moments when I definitely felt it wasn't a level playing field,” says Williams. “But in a really competitive arena, which is the only arena I've worked in, for the most part [the playing field] tilted in my favor as many times as it tilted against my favor. … It really does have to do with being proud of who you are and comfortable in your skin.”

Framing the Future

Whatever their experiences, when black women such as Hernandez and Mazloomian decide not to pursue licensure, the future of the profession as a whole is at risk, according to a little-publicized 2005 AIA report, “Demographic Diversity Audit,” which was prepared—reportedly at a cost of more than $250,000—by Holland & Knight, an independent team of researchers.

In surveys, interviews, and focus groups conducted by the researchers, 11,500 participants “overwhelmingly endorsed the concept that diversity is of critical concern to the future of the architecture profession,” according to the final report.

Theodore Landsmark chaired the AIA Diversity Committee when it commissioned the study. He warns, “The consequence of not [diversifying] is that the profession will occupy a diminished niche within the larger built environment and come to be seen to be providing services only to corporate and wealthy individuals, rather than the much wider range of people who are affected by good architecture.”

To recruit more minority students, architecture schools are targeting high schoolers who have been exposed to the field through construction or design, Landsmark says. “Rather than do the kind of scattershot recruiting that has tended to occur, it makes more sense to set up a table in The Home Depot in a community of color,” he says.

Meanwhile, architecture programs are trying to diversify their faculties and curriculums. At the University of Michigan's Taubman College of Architecture and Planning, for example, new course offerings include “Social Change and the Architect” and “Gender in Architecture,” and the school recently hired June Manning Thomas, an urban planner who is black and lectures on race, ethnicity, and gender. (She also happens to be Mazloomian's mother.)

By contrast, Powell says that when she attended Michigan in the mid-1990s, she retreated to the library to discover the work of black architects on her own.

Without such efforts, architects may well lose touch with their clientele, and their businesses could suffer, warns Landsmark. “It is safe to say that within the next decade, most of the clients will not look like what most of the architects look like today,” he says.

Prigmore sees that contrast between clients and architects now. In client meetings, she says, it's becoming rarer for her to be the only woman and only black person in a room: “It happens more frequently—and is most disconcerting—when the group is only architects.”


  • Kathryn Tyler Prigmore
Project manager
HDR Architecture
Alexandria, Va.

    Credit: Elena Dorfman

    Kathryn Tyler Prigmore Project manager HDR Architecture Alexandria, Va.
  • Kelly Powell
Senior architect/project manager
Davis Brody Bond Aedas
New York

    Credit: Elena Dorfman

    Kelly Powell Senior architect/project manager Davis Brody Bond Aedas New York
  • Renetta Moss
Special projects manager
Harris County Facilities and Property Management
Houston

    Credit: Elena Dorfman

    Renetta Moss Special projects manager Harris County Facilities and Property Management Houston
  • Raye McDavid
Principal
RAM Architecture
New York

    Credit: Elena Dorfman

    Raye McDavid Principal RAM Architecture New York

  • Kemba Mazloomian
Editor
Baha’i Publishing
Chicago

    Credit: Elena Dorfman

    Kemba Mazloomian Editor Baha’i Publishing Chicago
  • Sharon Sutton
Professor of architecture, urban design, and planning
University of Washington
Seattle

    Credit: Elena Dorfman

    Sharon Sutton Professor of architecture, urban design, and planning University of Washington Seattle
  • Yamani Hernandez
Architecture and construction career cluster manager
Chicago Public Schools
Chicago

    Credit: Elena Dorfman

    Yamani Hernandez Architecture and construction career cluster manager Chicago Public Schools Chicago
  • Allison Williams
Design principal
Perkins+Will
San Francisco

    Credit: Elena Dorfman

    Allison Williams Design principal Perkins+Will San Francisco