On April 30, about 30 people gathered in the Piper Auditorium at the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD) for a two-hour forum titled “Race and Architecture.” Hosted by GSD Loeb Fellow Steven Lewis and moderated by James Stockard, lecturer in housing studies in the GSD's Department of Urban Planning and Design, the evening was a debriefing by representatives from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the University of Pennsylvania, and the GSD. Each institution had independently convened a symposium this spring that examined the ways that issues of race permeate the design profession.
Before the forum began, a series of still shots showing black architects and their design work was displayed on a theater-size screen behind the chairs provided for the 10 participants. Beneath the images ran a ticker-style alphabetical roster of names. Both the images and the names went dark once the discussion began and were addressed only once during the discussion, when audience member Jeff Stein, who heads the architecture program at Boston Architectural College (BAC), noted that the conversation did not turn to actual buildings designed by minority architects.
The panel was a mix of architects, sociologists, and others who reported on the impetus for and results of their schools' symposia. MIT began planning its forum after discovering the school was graduating the same number of black architects as it had in the 1960s—and didn't know why. Penn was responding to race issues illuminated by Hurricane Katrina. And the GSD addresses the topic every decade or so. Reasons for the historically low number of minorities in the profession were not revelatory: low interest throughout the K–12 education process; a low percentage of minority students graduating college;
lack of visibility in the profession and in practice; and even a marred studio culture that favors those for whom competition is normal. Some specific methods to combat these issues were posited by BAC president Theodore Landsmark. He suggested that architecture schools band together to set up tables outside malls where young people gather, recruit from feeder colleges, and change accreditations to allow for more diversity. But all of the participants agreed that working on the manifestations of racial inequity was not the same as addressing its core. Unfortunately, as Lewis reminded the audience, the architecture profession is a microcosm of America, and such inequity is present whether the public lens is focused on it or not.
Given the two-hour limitation, it was difficult for the forum to offer more than the barest introduction to a body of knowledge and study that was clearly represented by a panel including, among others, Janet E. Helms, the Augustus Long Professor of Counseling Psychology and director of the Institute for the Study and Promotion of Race and Culture at Boston College; Victoria Kaplan, author of Structural Inequality: Black Architects in the United States; Penn architecture student Latoya Nelson; and Mark Jarzombek, director of history, theory, and criticism of architecture and art and professor of the history of architecture at MIT.
Pamela De Oliveira-Smith