The Architecture of Inequity

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Change takes time, due in part to our human tendency to resist change in favour of protecting our inherent blindspots but also because our ideas become enmeshed in the worlds we make for ourselves. In this latter way, antiquated ideas end up filling in the blanks of everything we do; from scientific studies to city planning. If we experience the world through our own manufactured mono-cultures then we build spaces that nurture monotony at best and deep seated disconnect and even violent prejudice at its worst.

Built spaces are living legacies of our transforming perspectives, what was once important in a building is no longer and we can see and explore both embodiments as they stand beside each other on the street, each one a monument to the values of their day. This can be a novel experience; we stroll through a heritage office building and marvel at the lack of natural light and overwhelming stuffiness, but it can also have deep psychological impact. Cape Town’s Dutch Colonial architecture ensured every residence was built with servant’s quarters which suited the racist Apartheid regime’s values but in today’s democracy they have been re-purposed as low income rentals for domestic workers. The inherited spaces reiterate fascist ideals generations after their supposed end. The brick and mortar of the world around us goes farther than we care to admit in cementing our outdated perspectives into place.

Syrian architect Marwa Al-Sabouni believes the impact of tunnel vision architecture has been an overlooked cause of conflict across the globe stating that “architecture in my country has played an important role in creating, amplifying and directing conflict between warring factions”. Al-Sabouni has arrived at the conclusion that “architecture plays a key role in whether a community crumbles or comes together” and cites colonial interference in urban planning as having had a devastating impact on the built environment of Syria and ultimately the people within it.

Which begs the question, if we are the people designing our cities, how do we see the world? Are we inherently blessed with an omniscience that raises us above our blindspots? If the appalling gender imparity and ethnic inequity stats of our industry are true (which they are) then it appears there are entrenched, outdated perspectives at play in our design processes.

With BC coming in second WORST after Saskatchewan (and well below the national average) for gender inequity in the Architectural work place as well as there being ZERO(?!) statistical reports on ethno-cultural diversity in Canadian architecture, we have to accept that we are not able to design ideal spaces for the population, simply because we don’t have a broad enough scope of input to finely tune how we arrive at design solutions.

In 2006 Margaret Neale of Stanford University, Gregory Northcraft of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Katherine Phillips of Columbia Business School set out to examine the impact of racial diversity on small decision making groups that value innovation and new ideas (there already being a significant amount of large data set studies that speak to its fiscal advantage in large organizations). Phillips shares the study’s conclusion: “The groups with racial diversity significantly outperformed the groups with no racial diversity. Being with similar others leads us to think we all hold the same information and share the same perspective. This perspective, which stopped the all-white groups from effectively processing the information, is what hinders creativity and innovation… People who are different from one another in race, gender and other dimensions bring unique information and experiences to bear on the task at hand.”

Here at Human Studio we are coming to terms with the fact that we needn’t look past our own office to see the impact of a narrow perspective. Although we benefit greatly as an organization from having diverse expertise we have not put the same concentrated effort in setting ourselves up to benefit from social diversity and the informational diversity that comes with it. How to proceed? With architectural rigor of course! We investigate the problem and we commit to solving it. Our Phase 1 currently includes reaching out to consultants while re-examining our growth goals. There are no precise guidelines to follow for small firms though Canada’s Federal Contractors Program (FCP) has a succinct employment equity act that is helping us shape our process. Additionally we have secured permission from The Centre For Global Inclusion to use their “Global Diversity & Inclusion Benchmark” tools to hold ourselves accountable . These fledgling efforts by no means grant us a pass but we have to start somewhere, owing a huge debt of gratitude to those who have invested their time and energy into forging the path ahead.

Peter Atkinson