Where Architecture Meets Race

Popular music reflects the full melting pot of American culture. So why is architecture still so white?

At this year's AIA convention Marshall Purnell, FAIA, a principal at the Washington D.C., firm Devrouax + Purnell Architects and Planners PC, was elected AIA 2008 president. In a recent interview with Record contributing writer Sam Lubell, Purnell discussed the need for architects to lead the sustainability movement, called for improved relations between the AIA and local components, suggested ways to raise salaries, and discussed the challenges of moving toward the Building Information Model system. But much of the conversation with the AIA's first African American president related to race and architecture.

AR: Do you plan to address diversity as AIA president?

MP: That's certainly an issue that the AIA needs to address. We haven't been very effective at it. Our numbers have changed substantially, but they're not where they should be. With women there has been a three- to four-time increase, African Americans have stayed stable at 1 percent. We also need more Latinos.

We need to go into the schools and into urban areas. For instance, in San Antonio, where we're holding the next convention, there are urban communities where there are kids who have never talked to an architect in their lives. We have the potential to inspire them. We need to get out into the communities to engage these kids and turn them on to the profession.

When I was president of the National Association of minority architects in 1985 and 1986 we had our convention in Atlanta and initiated an architectural design competition for students. Architects from our convention judged the work. We sent architects to nine schools. Just seeing an architect, and seeing someone who maybe looked like you, got students interested. Our convention resources are often wasted. I think much of our membership would volunteer for something like that.

AR: How effective are AIA scholarship programs?MP: We do have scholarship programs, and we decide every year how to distribute the money. It's a big number. I was chairman of the AIA's national scholarship program in 1986. We gave $2,500 to each student. That made a difference in 1986, but not today. Today trying to go to an architecture school can cost as much as $35,000 a year.

My contention is that it's not funding alone keeping African American children from going into architecture. For instance, none of my children have chosen architecture. They could have had a great start. Getting a scholarship had nothing to do with it. They looked into this profession and saw what the profession has offered as far as how it has treated minorities at entry level, mid-career, and beyond. They said, “That's too hard. I don't want to do that.” There aren't more than 10 African-American principals of majority-owned firms in the country. Why is that? What's keeping people from advancing? I've always said that if it's a pipeline you're trying to work on, you need to work on both ends of the pipeline. You can't just stuff people in the pipeline and not do anything on the other side. You need to make sure opportunities are open on the other side. People need the ability to practice with an even playing field.

AR: Is the AIA at fault for having such a small minority leadership?MP: Minorities represent 1.2 percent of AIA membership. Who can you expect to be leaders when 99 percent of profession is non-African-American? You can't fault the membership for who they pick as leaders. You have to fault the entire profession as far as who is in the membership.

Still, in terms of African Americans on a per-capita basis, we have a very high number of AIA fellows. The overall numbers say to me that as an African American in this profession, if you aren't displaying leadership and aren't one of the better students in your class you can't afford to stumble. You've got to be better than your counterpart just to stay even. It's amazing how few African-American architects are working for corporate America and at the federal level. If we're not being used in numbers there, what's left? Who in the private sector is hiring African-American architects? Decisions are made in the boardroom. If you don't work to open that up, then what is the point of getting into this profession? The ceiling is so low that you can't bust through it.  What you need at that point is a good client. You still need the job. You can get the degree but now you need a job. We need to make sure the client base is open to everybody practicing architecture and not just a certain number of people.

AR: Do you find American architecture too conservative?MP: Look at who is producing it. Our music, by contrast, is a result of our entire culture, because we have taken advantage of our diversity. If architecture is still music frozen in time, then we're doing classical music. There's no R&B, no jazz, no rap. What kind of architecture would a Miles Davis have given us? What kind of architecture would Duke Ellington have given us? When you look at who is contributing to the architectural fabric of American it's often boring. It's the same old, same old. What kind of architecture would Jay-Z give us if he got turned on by that creative mode? We need clients who are looking for those creative modes. It's one of the only modes of artistic expression where you need someone to commission it. If you're a painter you just paint. With architecture you need a patron. Architecture would get better if we involved people from the inner city. It would get enlivened and enriched. What would dance be without African Americans? What would our music be? When you start limiting who practices, that's a problem.

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