• “Society’s Cage” is a traveling interpretive installation by SmithGroup sculpted to symbolize the historic forces of racialized state violence. - photo by Alan Karchmer

In 2018, the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB) started to include data related to attrition in its yearly “NCARB by the Numbers” publication. The data revealed that minority architects were 25 to 30 percent more likely to fall off the path to registration than were their white counterparts. To begin to understand this trend, NCARB, along with the National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA), conducted a 2020 survey, “Baseline on Belonging,” that questioned respondents on themed issues: experience, examination, education, firm culture, and career development.

The survey reveals widespread differences in the experiences of whites and people of color, with an even larger gap faced by women of color. The disproportionate difficulties are not present solely during licensure; difficulties remain in the studio culture, where leadership continues to be mostly male and mostly white. Diversity in firm leadership is an important component of firm culture and has been shown to lead to benefits such as higher employee retention and higher financial performance, among others. 

Texas is a minority majority state. Why is the architecture profession not a reflection of this? How are minority and women architects supposed to be part of a profession not designed or built by or for them? And what will be the future of the profession if its demographics continue to be out of touch with the society it serves? For those active on social media, the conversation has been going on for some time, notably among minorities working at large architecture firms. The stories of two practices and how they’ve addressed these conversations are instructive.

“We are at an inflection point for the profession,” says one of the anonymous admins of @BlackatSOM, a social media page that has anonymously posted the experiences of current and previous SOM staff to shed light on systemic racism and bigotry at the firm. For all the stories that have been shared, countless more have been retracted due to fear of retaliation. “Instead of incorporating and creating positive change, the tactics used have been to scare people,” the anonymous admins say of the response from the firm. They had hoped to empower change in the profession, but instead hit walls. The admins have now resigned from SOM, or, if they were already ex-SOM, resigned from their other firms. As they wrote: “Watching and participating in this system, especially during the pandemic and social justice unrest, is heavy. We know how painful it is to love this profession while its leaders and gatekeepers consistently fail to see your worth.”

A similar account, @BlackatGensler, has also garnered a following and shared countless testimonials about workplace discrimination. “It’s jarring to commute in NYC seeing that nearly half of the demographic is nonwhite and walk into the office seeing mostly white faces and all white faces in leadership,” one post reads. “It’s not just Gensler, but an industry problem. But being the giant they are, Gensler should set the example. In my studio, 11 of the 12 that were laid off ‘because of COVID’ were minorities. It’s hypocritical to not be aware of that and a week later post they are ‘against racism’ and committing to recruiting a diverse staff.” 

Whereas SOM stonewalled @BlackatSOM, Gensler engaged in a conversation with @BlackatGensler and published on its website a five-part “Strategies to Fight Racism,” acknowledging that while statements are critical, it is actions that will create lasting change.

Anti-discrimination and pro-diversity and equity actions are underfoot elsewhere. In 2021, Women in Architecture (WiA) groups across Texas will be providing entrepreneurial workshops targeted toward the advancement of marginalized high school and college level students by supporting their development through mentorship, fellowship, invited design competitions, design and portfolio workshops, and talks with practicing minority professionals. They will be empowering marginalized young professionals by foregrounding their accomplishments and contributions to the profession and by sponsoring licensure. By partnering with NOMA Texas chapters, WiA is also advocating for minority representation at all of its speaker event panels.

Anzilla Gilmore, FAIA, is a founding member of Houston’s NOMA chapter and the 2020 inaugural recipient of the Texas Society of Architect’s Award for Equitable Practice in Architecture in Honor of John S. Chase Jr., FAIA. When she graduated from Prairie View A&M University in the late ’90s, she entered a profession where very few people looked like her. She felt the lack of representation acutely and decided to take action to ensure that no black female who came after her would feel the lack of representation. “No one is seeking diversity at all costs,” she says. “What minorities are seeking is the opportunity that they have earned through their education, talent, and dedication. Firm leaders need to recognize that if a minority graduate manages to make it through an architecture program (programs that, more often than not, are actively attempting to weed them out), they are the cream of the crop. Firms should support minorities in the same way they nurture students from Harvard or Yale. The culture of schools and firms must shift so that architecture as a profession works to identify and tear down the barriers that have limited racial and cultural diversity in the profession.” 

She spoke about the stigma of interviewing and hiring people from historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) like Prairie View A&M, and about the lack of mentorship when she graduated and began working for a large firm. “I have had architects tell me how students from HBCUs have fallen short of their expectations or just disappeared. What they don’t know is that they are talking about me. I started my career as that black intern from Prairie View who quietly left the firm because I did not feel like I fit in. They never consider that I, the woman that the profession now deems worthy of accolades, left traditional practice because I was not welcome. Today, it’s our job to support the next generation. Young minorities need to know that they have a voice and that someone is listening. They cannot continue to be silent, and we cannot continue to stand by and let the silence continue.”

Dr. Lana Coble is a project executive at Tellepsen Builders and is on the faculty of the University of Houston for construction management. With experience in construction, architecture, and as an owner’s representative, she has also studied the metrics of women in the field and taught workshops for minority contractors. “The needle has not moved much in 41 years,” says Coble. “When you compare the increases of growth in healthcare, law, and IT, they are growing at a greater rate than they are in the building profession.” 

When she graduated at the top of her class in 1980 from Texas A&M, it was a rude awakening. “You don’t expect pushback because of your gender.” Coble spoke about adaptation/mitigation techniques to build relationships, and the business development shift as owner selection committees diversify and expect the same of project teams. “You have to look to the character of the people leading the company. The commitment has to be from the top about diversity, culture, acceptance, and inclusion, and if it’s not there, you are never going to get momentum to it. I have never felt less than or diminished because of who I am. It makes a big difference. But just because there are people driving the culture, it does not mean everyone is on board. The key to any good team is the ability to adapt in an organic world that is constantly changing and evolving. If you don’t, you will have rope burn holding too tight to the way it was.”

Florence Tang is a journalist, architectural designer, and project manager based in Houston. 

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