by Mark Gardner, AIA, LEED AP
My path to architecture began with an almost naïve understanding of what I might face in becoming an architect.
Initially, I was lured by the art, science, history and technical nature of the field, the ability to affect the environment and change people’s lives. I had an opportunity to practice a profession with a history.
I had never met a Black architect until I got to Georgia Tech.
Even at that time, I didn’t have the experience to ask the hard questions: Is the practice of architecture difficult? Is it made more difficult by the complication of color? At what point will the bias of others get shelved? Could I make use of this position to understand what it means to be a good architect?
I only needed to put my talents forward… right?
The architecture profession does not represent the cross section of this country, much like congress. Congress is 87 percent white; 85 percent in the House and 96 percent in the Senate. Based on an article in The Atlantic, “The 33 Whitest Jobs in America” , The Architecture Profession is roughly 91.3 percent white. Black architects make up less than 2% of the total number of registered architects nationwide.
How does this clear lack of diversity affect our design? What does it mean? I went to Georgia Tech and I was 1 of 4 African-American students in a class of 120 students. Some professors were my champions and mentors and others, not so much. Occasionally unsure of my footing, I would make decisions slowly, deliberately and waited for opportunities.
Early in my career, as friends found jobs and started their path toward licensure, grad school or whatever was coming next, I was turned away from many majority architecture firms. I would interview with the same firms and hear kind words, but little more. Still I kept faith. If I worked hard, that hard work would be rewarded. At one interview after a few years of working and managing, I had a firm Principal tell me that I could fill the role of an intern who was leaving for school. I reminded her of my experience level and was met by a blank stare. It is a difficult moment to reconstruct. Was I overly sensitive? Had she just overlooked my portfolio? Did she make up her mind in her busy schedule to believe what she wanted to believe? Whether we recognize it or not, there is an internal never-ending battle being waged by what we think we know against the unknown. Our eyes can't lie and yet our bias only gives undue weight to doubt. Questioning this bias is a good and necessary thing. I eventually found my opportunity from two African-American architects who could understand my struggles because it was their struggle. William Stanley and Ivenue Love-Stanley taught me how to find a space to design and make use of my experience. I sat in the theater at the 2014 AIA Convention to hear Ivenue share the lessons from our story. She practiced what she preached as evidenced in her 2014 Whitney Young Award Acceptance Speech:
“How many of you today realize that it is absolutely important that young people be afforded internships, as well as, permanent positions in your firms…” she said. “I, for one, will continue to advocate for change. I want to simply ask you to search your souls and honestly ask the question, ‘Is this profession what you want it to be?’ There is a scarcity of minorities and women in key leadership positions at the major architecture firms in the country. It is astounding. I would suggest that we start by aggressively increasing enrollment of minorities at major schools of architecture. Then aggressively work to increase the representation of minorities and female faculty members…these improvements are long overdue. We stand to lose an entire generation if we do not act fast.” - Ivenue Love-Stanley, FAIA
I agree. Why do we as a profession not give more opportunity to younger architects — in particular, women and those of color? They bring incredible value to the profession, something unique, a new story to tell- the future story. The sea of change Ivenue was asking for is not one that can be made alone but requires the majority to align with what is being asked by the minority. I have been fortunate to be in situations where I have the opportunity to prove my talents and found the confidence to trust in my talents. That confidence is built upon the support and respect of architects who trained me.
The time spent in Atlanta gave me the confidence to return to school to pursue a graduate degree in architecture. Eventually a junior architect position brought me to New York and I spent several years working in various firms. I was always trying to get better, learn as much as possible and value the power of observation. From a young age, as an African-American, you’re told you have to work harder because in some quarters little is expected of you.
As a principal of a firm, I now sit in a position of privilege, but it is also a position of perspective. I remember being a student. I remind myself what it is like to sit across the table in that interview. I remember the times when I could have used a mentor. I am a mentor. When asked “How did you do it?” or “Tell me the steps to get where I want to go.” The first thing I say, is that we are free to write our own stories and there is not a guide book. I am reminded of a Charlie Rose interview with Steve Martin, that resonates with me. He says, “I always say, be so good they can’t ignore you...be undeniable.”
I have found the confidence now to be the only one in the room. I no longer feel the burden to assimilate, but to celebrate that my experiences also want to be shared. We can all be agents of change. The disparities and bias that exist in our society demand it.
EQxD Get Real Series Posts
If you liked reading this feature, you may want to explore these other posts.
- EQxD Get Real Series: Bias & Privilege by Rosa Sheng, AIA
- EQxD Get Real: Being the Only One in the Room, by Mark Gardner, AIA
- EQxD Get Real: Be Willing to Listen | Recognize our Privilege and Bias, by Katherine Williams, AIA
- EQxD Get Real: The Weight by Marilyn Moedinger, AIA
- EQxD Get Real: Architecture - Open to All by Jared W. Smith, AIA
- EQxD Get Real: Bias & Privilege, should it define or limit your dreams? by LaShae Ferguson, Assoc. AIA
- EQxD Get Real: Check your bias blind spot by Sharon R. George, AIA
- EQxD Get Real: When Insomnia Speaks, by Alicia Liebel-Berg, Assoc. AIA
- EQxD Get Real: The Mom Bias vs. The Mom Privilege by Meghana Joshi, Assoc. AIA
- EQxD Get Real: I am Learning by Lora Teagarden, AIA