The killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis is one of countless examples of police brutality against black people, and the widely circulated video of his asphyxiation by a white police officer has triggered an outpouring of rage, grief, and heartache in cities worldwide. A significant portion of human society now stands united against racial injustice and is making strident calls for reform.
The architecture community shares this anger, pain, and sense of loss. Architects generally focus on creating and building, so Floyd’s murder has led some to feel helpless—but inaction is not an option. What can architects do to make a measurable difference against racial injustice?
James Garrett Jr., AIA, has some answers. A fifth-generation black resident of St. Paul, Garrett is a founder of the architecture firm 4RM+ULA and a colleague of mine at the University of Minnesota. He also knew George Floyd personally, making the news of his brutal killing even more devastating.
Although Garrett was not surprised that Floyd’s death sparked protests, the fact that several of 4RM+ULA’s commissioned projects were damaged—including two community art centers—has deeply unsettled him. “It’s very traumatic for me to be in the midst of such intense destructive energy,” he says.
Garrett feels that his highest value will be in the rebuilding process, but he says that time has not yet arrived. “There has to be an endurance of the pain, frustration, sadness, anger, and all the emotions of this destructive cycle—balanced with the understanding that there will be a moment when we shift, and the energy moves toward creating new things from the remnants of the old things that are literally and figuratively burning down."
When the time to build does come, Garrett will pursue a three-step approach that is standard practice at 4RM+ULA—and a method he believes all architects can employ to achieve more equitable and inclusive outcomes.
The first step is to organize a representationally diverse team that has broad-based knowledge and expertise. The second step is to establish a community engagement plan. Ideally, at least one team member should have a personal connection with the neighborhood in which a project is based. The third and final step is to leverage the work of one or more community-centered artists. As members of the design team, the artists will incorporate site-specific responses into a project as a further means of engagement.
Garrett’s three-pronged strategy effectively partners with diverse communities because community members can relate to team members, are heard and understood, and ultimately see themselves represented in the work. Unfortunately, Garrett often witnesses a different approach employed by architecture firms that results in a “disaster capitalism” phenomenon. Companies that do not hire or mentor a diverse staff, that lack a connection to a community, and that have no engagement plan create an exploitative relationship. "You’re going to jump in and cash in on the pain and suffering and explosion of decades of all kinds of inhumane treatment,” he says, "and you’re not putting any of that money, leadership, or opportunity into that community.”
White-owned businesses and exclusively white selection committees can also present challenges. Architects can also make a difference by paying attention to—and holding them accountable for—racial bias, explicit or implicit. As a partner in a minority-owned firm, Garrett is all too familiar with discrimination disguised as discernment. He is frequently invited to submit project proposals so that his presence diversifies the candidate pool. However, when his firm is not selected, the debrief is often suspect or problematic. “RFPs say the right things, but the goal posts move,” Garrett explains. Established criteria suddenly change during the process, replaced with new standards that are inherently biased; for instance, a minority firm invited to submit might later be told it does not have enough experience in the specific project typology. But Garrett argues that such expertise is difficult to obtain when opportunities are kept out of reach.
When 4RM+ULA pursued a theater project, for example, the client rejected the proposal due to the firm’s lack of theater design experience. However, Garrett points out that no firm of color has had a chance to design a theater in the state of Minnesota. “The moment you make similar experience a criterion, you are committing to perpetuating the system of white supremacy,” he says. “You can say whatever platitudes you want, comfortably knowing you don’t have to work with firms of color. The message is, ‘I’ve shown initiative in trying to be inclusive.’ But you haven’t.”
Garrett has community allies who inform him when selection committees, often all-white, show signs of racial bias—a practice they call “the same old bullshit.” However, not all firms vying for a project are aware of this phenomenon. To effect meaningful change, all architects should be trained to detect evidence of discrimination and hold the responsible individuals accountable. Architects serving on the client side must pay attention to shifting goal posts and other biased practices in order to stand up for people of color.
Other questions that Garrett recommends architects ask include: “What is your plan for equity? What is your procurement strategy? How does that translate into capital projects? How much of that gets into the bloodstream of the communities you talk about uplifting?”
The prevalence of discriminatory behavior in architecture is a significant reason that many black students pursue other career paths. Young people of color need compassionate mentors who can advocate for their academic and professional development. Garrett has taught and mentored many individuals who have remained devotees to the field—and to him—for life. “I’m investing in young people, giving them opportunities,” he says. “That’s what it means, and that’s what it takes to build a different profession. That’s the type of stuff that’s necessary if we’re going to build a community that reflects the community.”
The protesters may disperse, the smoke clear, and the sirens fade, but one thing is clear: We cannot return to the old ways. Eradicating systemic racial bias in architecture will not be easy, however. No one knows the magnitude of this challenge more than firm-owners of color, who have uniquely faced a steep uphill battle since their existence. “I don’t have any sympathy for a system that is systematically underserving me,” Garrett says. “What’s the opportunity cost for all these projects that I don’t get over the years in terms of the growth of my business, and my ability to hire and train for this profession? The impact that we're having on young people—I could be doing a lot more of that. It’s devastating for our industry, and nobody cares.”
Listen to Garrett detail the pervasiveness of white supremacy throughout his home state and the building industry, his long-accepted knowledge that he could easily be the next George Floyd, and much more in the podcast interview "James Garrett Jr. Hopes George Floyd Is the Final Wake-Up Call Architects Need" with ARCHITECT editor Wanda Lau.