• Equality in Architecture

POLY-LOGUE: On “How architecture can create dignity for all”

November 30, 2018 | by Courtney Ho; photos by Ellen Penner and Courtney Ho


We were ecstatic to host our second POLY-LOGUE on “How architecture can create dignity for all” -- a TED Talk by architect and writer John Cary. As this is still one of our POLY-LOGUE firsts, we decided to try another format by starting the discussion off with visual content to diversify the way we engage with content! We like watching things, don’t we?!


In this TED Talk, Cary highlights an example that long women’s bathroom lines are representative of a design flaw and an issue within the field of design: he emphasizes that the lack of diversity in design leads to thoughtless, compassionless spaces. Design, he describes, should serve to dignify people and make people feel valued, respected, honored and seen. Cary does a call out to architects and designers, especially his “fellow white guys”, to dedicate to serving the public good, highlighting that “the contemporary world was literally built by men who have rarely taken the time to understand how people unlike them experience their designs.” Further, he poses the question “if good design is only for a privileged few, what good is it?”



After watching this TED Talk, we split off into two small groups. In one group, Kelly, Aziza, Jillian, Brady, and Robin discussed the following:


  • Design with accessibility in school, even if designs are conceptual

  • Balancing office could lead to the better-shaping of design

  • Women-only offices - segregation vs. giving an extra opportunity and extra voice

  • Why aren’t women getting registered?

  • Motherhood is being viewed differently than fatherhood. How can flexible work hours be integrated in the field of architecture?

  • Young women going into male-dominated firm may feel less comfortable and supported

  • Mentorship and seeing women in leadership roles could play a part in changing the dynamics of architectural practice

  • Use your power to empower others - give others a voice in meetings

  • Generational gap influences current and past office structures -- will it be better in our generation?

  • Boys move through the world and are taught their voices have value -- thus giving an innate confidence.

  • Overly conceptual projects presented by female students vs. male students -- benefit of the doubt is given to men over women



In the second group, Jeff, Rachel, Lachlan, Ellen, and I discuss our points:


  • The make-up of current workforce - the percentage of men, women, people of colour, etc.; identifying reasons for when the disparity occurs; women registered as architects is nearly 15% in the U.S., while the percentage of persons of colour registered is less (ref: TED Talk). What happens between studying and practicing architecture?

  • Corporate culture; maternity leave impacts/influences the hireability of women; general patterns of opportunity

  • There is a fine line of who can go to school and who cannot go to school -- a lot of things require changes in our existing systems

  • On the school side of things: could there be more scholarship opportunities for e.g. people of colour, low-income, etc.?; more scholarship opportunities would foster educational/career opportunities in the field of design and architecture.

  • Partnership with e.g. Dell: providing scholarship opportunities for students to go to a design-based school; where computers/laptops may not be accessible for that student

  • Design interface and designing the system; everything is designed with people’s backgrounds

  • Regulations in the design: e.g. in hospitals, heights of windows are off the ground -- how were these regulations made? Regulations could be re-evaluated; it is complex navigating through governing bodies vs. private bodies to achieve more favourable design

  • The importance of community engagement: how much of feedback is used/considered?

  • Speaking in “archi-speak” is lost in translation between stakeholders; transferring of user information vs. money -- gets lost in the process

  • As an architect, communicate your time; simplify your own language

  • Empirical data plus design; using empirical research can inform design

  • Must advocate for these concerns at the risk of losing a client


What was interesting was that, once our two groups reconvened to summarize our discussions, we realized we had relatively the same conversations, but in parallel! We summarized the following key points:


  • What happens in the 5 years after studying architecture school?

  • How do you make architecture school accessible to different social classes? (e.g. scholarships)

  • Placement spots implemented in schools could invite more opportunities for people who may not necessarily have access to university

  • In other places, e.g. University of Strathclyde (Scotland), the education is paid for, therefore the tuition plays a role in accessibility in attending school

  • The field of architecture is time consuming -- some students need to work while in school to pay for school

  • Could architecture firms integrate more flexible hours to accommodate work-life balance?


Overall, we questioned if the systematic structure of architecture schools could be re-formatted to consider the accessibility of education to all demographics -- and not just the privileged few -- in order to diversify design. Similarly, does the work culture invite work-life balance and flexibility to be accessible by people with different needs? How do we navigate the existing institutional and governing systems at the intersection of and beyond architecture? Though it is difficult to arrive at solutions at this time, this POLY-LOGUE invited an insightful brainstorm of questions we can each take with us as we challenge the field of architecture from school to practice.

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