In one London borough, a quarter of residents are black. Yet of the 110 firms selected by the council to compete for £100m in fees, not a single one is led by a black architect.
It was billed as one of the most inclusive opportunities for architects in history, a bold open call for emerging talents to be given the chance to win public-sector projects – the holy grail of any aspiring young practice. Southwark council declared that its New Architect Design Services Framework was a “first-of-a-kind” attempt to engage with a new generation of diverse designers. As councillor Leo Pollak put it: “It is the framework some architects have been waiting for all their years.”
It turns out that black architects will have to wait even longer. Out of the 110 architecture firms selected for the panel, with the chance to bid for £100m of fees from public sector clients over the next four years, not a single one of them is led by a black architect. It would be an alarming result in any context, but it is particularly stark in a London borough that has the largest black African population in the country, and where over a quarter of residents identify as black.
No black child can see anybody that looks like them design so much as a park bench in their borough
“The outcome was entirely predictable,” says one black architect based in Southwark, who applied for the panel. “They didn’t even shortlist a black practice, and they haven’t ever done so in the past. It’s the same across London. Almost no black child can see anybody that looks like them be appointed to design so much as a park bench in their borough.”
For this architect, who asked to remain anonymous, the result is merely the latest frustrating episode in a long history of exclusion. Having grown up on a Southwark council estate and studied architecture at a university in the borough, he now has two decades of experience in practice, including working on RIBA award-winning housing schemes, and has engaged with councils across London for years to encourage them to widen the net. Yet he finds his applications for public work are rarely even considered. “It’s the result of generations of unconscious bias ingrained into the system,” he says.
Southwark insists that its assessment process was entirely “applicant-blind”, and that more than half of its evaluation panel was made up of black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) people. A council spokesperson said: “The framework consciously sought to remove the barriers that limit the variety of skills and perspectives available to use on public sector projects, and is the first framework of its kind to remove insurance and turnover thresholds and forward-evaluate smaller practices [ie, allow them to submit unbuilt work].” Southwark says that several open webinar sessions were held with architects to help shape the evaluation criteria, and that its Fairer Futures Commitments were used in the selection process. Yet, of the several black-led practices that applied, not a single one was even shortlisted.
In the eyes of quantity surveyor Bola Abisogun, founder of Urbanis, the result reflects an endemic problem across the sector. “Public authorities have failed miserably,” he says. “Why is it that, in areas where councils have an overwhelming number of non-white business owners, their procurement process excludes that very same demographic?”
Abisogun has long battled to increase diversity in the construction industry. He chaired the 2010 Equality and Human Rights Commission’s inquiry into race discrimination in construction and produced a report on procurement reforms in 2013. But he feels his recommendations keep falling on closed ears. “Councils keep defaulting to the same processes,” he says. “The biggest mistake is that they have outsourced their intelligence, relying on advisers to tell them everything. Internally, they have no capacity to understand if what they’re being told is right.”
In Southwark’s case, the architecture framework was administered by procurement specialist LHC. When challenged over discrimination, LHC responded: “As standard practice LHC do not currently collate information on any of the characteristics of the organisations bidding for our frameworks – to do so would be difficult for us to ensure no prejudice is made during evaluation.”
In many critics’ eyes, the failure to collect this data is precisely the problem. Without knowing who they are doing business with, how can a council ever hope to ensure it has a diverse base of suppliers? UK public authorities spend about £300bn each year on buying goods and services from other organisations across every sector, a figure that is set to grow as the government plans to build its way out of economic collapse. If all of that money went to white-owned businesses, we would have no way of knowing.
“Imagine trying to bring down carbon emissions without counting the level of carbon emissions,” says the Southwark-based architect. “Public authorities say they’re trying to increase the diversity of their suppliers, but they’re not even measuring it.”
To prove his point, he lodged a freedom of information request with every London borough in 2016 to determine if any of them had ever employed a black architect. None of them could say that they had.
The Guardian recently contacted a number of councils and received the same response. “How rarely councils trade with diverse suppliers remains usefully opaque,” says the architect, “whereas they have infinite granular detail on which ethnicities collect which benefits. We are seen as the needy client group – as takers not makers.”
“Bureaucrats get incredibly lazy about this,” says Elsie Owusu, a leading black architect who has spoken out against discrimination for decades. “Their processes are all focused on anticipating criticism, rather than thinking, ‘What communities are we trying to serve?’ There has to be a better understanding of what delivering high-quality architecture to a socially disadvantaged community really means.”
As another black architect argues, when it comes to shaping the built environment, diversity leads to better outcomes. “This is everyone’s issue,” she says. “It’s about making better places for everyone, designed by people who consider factors that others might not. Society is made up of people with very different needs, so there is a lot more to offer if you have that lived experience in the room.”
The notion of an inclusive system for spending huge amounts of taxpayers’ money is not just an aspiration; it is a legal duty. The 2010 Equality Act bestows all local authorities with the public sector equality duty, a requirement to consider how their policies affect minority groups, including having “due regard” to the need to minimise disadvantages and encourage participation.
John Halford, a leading human rights lawyer, has successfully litigated a number of cases where public bodies have failed to discharge their equality duties, or practised indirect discrimination.
“When it comes to procurement, councils should be looking very carefully at their rules and thresholds,” he says. “For example, if you had a rule to only accept architecture practices that have been established for 30 years, or have completed projects of a certain value, then that rule superficially seems non-discriminatory in terms of race and gender. But, obviously, if you look at the demographics of architecture firms, you quickly see that such a rule might exclude most BAME- or women-led practices that have been established more recently, or worked on smaller projects. Criteria might appear to be race-neutral on paper, but when you actually test them against the demographics of the industry, they’re going to have a discriminatory effect.”
In a situation that has historically had lower BAME representation, you would expect the procurement exercise to take positive steps
Halford stresses that, under the Equality Act, simply having an open tender is not good enough. Councils have a duty to actively encourage applications from under-represented groups, too. “In a situation that has historically had lower BAME representation, you would expect the procurement exercise to take positive steps to encourage those groups to apply in the first place,” he says. “It should be a process where you look to see whether there are equality problems in the way you have done things historically, and how you might do them differently in future.”
The mayor of London has condemned the outcome of Southwark’s framework as “clearly unacceptable”, yet Southwark insists that it followed the mayor’s own procurement guidelines for equality, diversity and inclusion. The mayor launched his own Architecture, Design and Urbanism Panel in 2018, but, when questioned by the Guardian, a spokesperson declined to confirm how many BAME- or black-led practices are on it. “Innovatively for the time, 5% of the scoring was awarded to bidders based on their understanding and commitment to diversity,” they said in a statement, “but unfortunately that still failed to achieve the wider community representation we were seeking.”
Southwark councillor Leo Pollak says he is frustrated by the low number of BAME-led practices on the council’s framework, but he places the blame on the nature of the architecture profession itself. “In spite of architects from all walks of life working on our council housing schemes,” he says, “we know that our design pool still too far reflects the wider systemic issues in the profession that limit the cultural diversity of its practitioners.” Writing in the Architects’ Journal, Pollak is critical of an industry that is mired in “long and expensive training, exclusionary language, slow efforts to decolonise the Eurocentric curriculums in many design schools … not to mention an embarrassing and antiquated ‘old boys’ culture that still persists”.
All of this is true, but some suggest such thinking does a disservice to the minority-led practices that have succeeded against the odds. “People say black architects simply don’t exist,” says one, “or if they do exist, they’re not good enough. We are most definitely here, we’re just asking to be given a chance.”
Yẹmí Àlàdérun, an architect who moved from private practice to work for a housing association, has experienced the situation from both sides. “Now I am on the client side, I do understand how much risk these public bodies are having to take,” she says. “You naturally want to go with the guys who have been around for ever and have the massive professional indemnity insurance – the safe pair of hands who have done it 20 times before. But that means the new architects coming up are never given a chance.”
When she saw how many black architecture students who came after her struggled to find jobs, she co-founded Paradigm, a professional network aimed at increasing BAME representation in the built environment, and has been a mentor for the Social Mobility Foundation and the Fluid Diversity Mentoring Programme. “I’ve been lucky,” she says. “I have been rewarded professionally for working hard, but I know many who are just as industrious but see no progression. I’ve seen black students come out with first-class degrees and they still can’t get an interview. If you’ve done your Part 1 [the first three-year degree of the architecture course] and can’t get any work, why would you go back to do your Part 2, let alone your Part 3 [the professional qualification]?”
The most recent education statistics from the RIBA show that, while 6.4% of applicants to undergraduate architecture degree courses are black, they make up only 5.2% of accepted students. By the time it gets to Part 3, black students achieving the qualification make up only 2.7% of the cohort (87.9% are white), while the number of black registered architects in the UK is just 1% of the total.
It's like a toxic cult. One of my brightest students couldn’t even get a job interview because he had an African name
One established architecture tutor, who has taught at a number of former polytechnics, which tend to have a higher number of BAME students, despairs at the systematic racism she has witnessed.
“It’s like a toxic cult,” she says. “One of my brightest students couldn’t even get a job interview because he had an African name, so he ended up leaving architecture to work at Asda. Others have gone into web design or tech. If you want to be successful and earn some money as a black person, why on earth would you stick with architecture?”
Once they have qualified, the chances of career progression are also stacked against them. As architecture student Shawn Adams told the Guardian: “You don’t see black people in higher positions [in practice]. You go into it assuming that the sky’s the limit, but there’s this glass ceiling. If you go beyond and try to do too much, you’re seen as a problem. If you conform to the norm and try not to be the best, you’ll be fine.”
Brothers Akil and Seth Scafe-Smith came to working in the built environment through a different route, so can see the peculiarities of the architecture profession through an alternative lens. Akil studied urban design, while Seth had worked in project management, before they co-founded the Resolve Collective with Gameli Ladzekpo, an interdisciplinary design practice that combines architecture, engineering, technology and art to address social challenges.
“Architecture is so behind on the conversation,” says Akil, who spent a year in a council urban design department, where he was the only black employee on his team. “We work a lot with art galleries, and there are still vast inequalities in the art world, but there is much more openness to talking about these issues.” Recently the collective held a public architecture event on Zoom, which had to stop short after it was hijacked by racist abuse.
Seth, who also works for a London borough, stresses the value of including those without conventional architecture training in the conversation. “Shaping the built environment requires so much more than people who have a single set of skills,” he says. “It’s about looking through other lenses, and how that local knowledge is valued and accessed. Local authorities need to commit more time to understanding what they already have in their area, and how their own communities can support and inspire them to do things in a better way.”
Many feel the time is long overdue for positive action. For Abisogun, the terms of the Equality Act and the recommendations of countless reports have simply failed to have any lasting impact. Data on ethnicity was collected for a short time, but it was soon scrapped as “red tape”. He points to the example of the United States where, following the civil rights movement in the 1960s, a number of states adopted the principle of “set aside” contracts for minority-owned businesses. “The UK is still missing a trick,” he says. “A lot of people didn’t realise that across the world there are strategies and policies in place in an attempt to level up.”
Under the set-aside policy, a city can declare that a percentage of the total value of a contract must go to companies owned by a member of a minority group. The City of Atlanta, Georgia, for example, mandates that 27% of construction contracts must go to minority businesses, while the federal government has a goal to award at least 5% of federal contracts to small disadvantaged businesses each year.
Such a policy would be incompatible with UK and EU law as it stands, and there have been questions about its merits and effectiveness. “There is a big, never-resolved debate about whether the principle of quotas is a good thing or a bad thing,” says Halford, “about whether the role of the law is to eliminate discrimination as far as possible, or to rebalance historical injustices. Until there is a correct balance, the law needs to push for proper representation.”
Southwark borough spokesman says: “We still have far to go. A lack of diversity in any of our frameworks will not be fixed overnight, but it is something we are determined to continue to inject the energy, resources and time needed to see a positive change.”
“We’re just asking for a level playing field,” says the Southwark-based architect. “This feels like a powerful moment to demand real change, and I’m optimistic we can turn the tide. After all, no black architect has got to where they are without being tenacious.”
Source: The Guardian