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The Young Architects Forum (YAF), a program of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and the College of Fellows (COF), is organized to address issues of particular importance to recently licensed architects.

Architecture: the missing link between equitable communities and diverse professions

By Matthew T. Pultorak AIA posted 05-01-2021 12:00 PM


Architecture: the missing link between equitable communities and diverse professions 

By Kelsey Jordan, Assoc AIA, WELL AP

The demographic makeup of the architectural profession is traditionally dominated by graying, white men. For years, diverse project teams have been sought, but if the architectural recruitment pool is inundated with white men, then how is the profession to have a truly holistic outlook when creating culturally inclusive built environments? Better yet, why is the built profession and other traditionally white-male-dominated fields still saturated with one aesthetic? The lack of diversity is more historically systematic in politics and the built environment than it would seem to the naked eye. Therefore, for design professionals to provide unbiased guidance on equitable, sustainable communities, architects must understand why their profession is not diverse and what has caused an invisible hurdle for minorities interested in the field.

Eighty-nine years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, in which “all men are created equal,” in 1865, the 13th Amendment was passed to abolish slavery and gave Congress the authority to create appropriate legislation to enforce it. The amendment solidified the need for equality, but 155 years later, the fight for equality hasn’t ceased. Segregation remained for years to come and, in some cases, has remained a clear obstacle. For instance, to this day, data shows that a majority of people prefer to live in communities with members of the same complexion. Some could argue the cultural factors behind this data, but there are historical political policies at play.
“Redlining” — a hateful, discriminatory process of denying services, typically loans or insurance, to areas with a high percentage of minorities — and “white flight” — the systemic fear of losing socioeconomic status because of the integration of races where one lives — were factors in maintaining the historical norms of segregated neighborhoods. The poor quality of housing in these designated areas was accompanied by overcrowding and maintenance nightmares. This would have been a point in history where architects could have stepped in to stop widespread racial inequalities in the built environment. Instead, the government institutionalized policies, like the 1949 Housing Act, to further segregate affluent neighbors from their less fortunate neighbors. Places like the infamous Pruitt-Igoe towers in St. Louis were erected as racially driven segregation complexes. Some towers were reserved for whites only, whereas others in the development were for African Americans.

It was not until poor white families could no longer fill vacancies that additional African American families in need could be considered for a vacant spot in the whites-only towers. Eighteen years after first being occupied, in 1972, the Pruitt-Igoe towers were set to be demolished because of unsafe, crime-ridden, slum-like conditions. Just as they were when the city cleared space for the project to be built, families who lived on the site of Pruitt-Igoe were displaced throughout St. Louis to other low-income areas. Today, part of the Pruitt-Igoe site has a school on it, and the other unused area is overgrown nature, set to become an emergency hospital.
Around the same time that Pruitt-Igoe was being torn down, 19 years after the Housing Act, the Fair Housing Act went into effect, intending to prevent discrimination and reverse housing segregation. But generational attitudes about racial inferiority were already too strong for the acts to be supported psychologically and effectively. For years, policies had defined where people should live based upon racial exploitation, and this had a trickle-down effect on the quality of education children were allowed to obtain based upon the geographic location of their guardians.

The desegregation of schools happened with the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling, yet one could argue that America’s precollegiate educational system is still segregated and inequitable. The fact is that certain schools are better off than others, and children in less affluent districts are more likely to face multifaceted educational obstacles like poverty, inadequate access to food, homelessness, and/or substance abuse in the home. Problems like these happen in most every school on a case-by-case basis, but some districts are more susceptible, and many have large minority populations, causing inequitable educational settings based on long-standing racial lines that were drawn by Jim Crow laws. According to Richard Rothstein’s “The Color of Law,” “In segregated schools, neither [whites nor African Americans] can gain experience navigating the diverse environments in which, as adults, they will have to make their way. … High average achievement is almost impossible to realize in a low-income, segregated school, embedded in a segregated neighborhood. Many children in it could do much better in an integrated school, leading to their stronger and more likely positive contributions to society later, as adults.”
Would the world be different if “desegregation” of communities was more equitable? One could say life in general would be more positive if equity were embraced wholeheartedly the moment acts were signed, but historical hate and inferiority complexes mean that momentous moments like laws being signed are never the end of the fight for equality. The solution to the architectural profession’s diversity gap is tied to the equitable-community crisis. As architects, we have the aptitude for visualizing better built environments, thus we are also in the position to intimately listen and learn from community members about what they need culturally to achieve an improved standard of living. If architects are not successful at listening and implementing what unique communities require, we ourselves will not be diverse. We need equitable communities to become the standard so that diverse professional teams are also abundant. Now is the time to use our architectural skill set to empower minorities by committing to designing equitable communities. It will take time, but no one loses when everyone is allowed a fair opportunity to thrive. 

Author Bio:

Kelsey Jordan, Assoc AIA, WELL AP
Jordan is an architectural design professional at Ittner Architects in St. Louis. As chair of the AIA STL WiA Community Outreach Committee she empowers young women through design.