‘On diversity, architecture needs to declare a state of emergency’

Growing up, I simply wanted to be an architect. However, moving to Edinburgh to officially start my architecture education, I soon realised I was no longer simply Aisha the aspiring architect, I was now Aisha, the ‘Black Muslim Woman’ architect because there wasn’t any other student there with a similar background to mine.

To make matters worse, there wasn’t a single black tutor, let alone a Muslim one. And each time I explained my design concepts during a critique, I had to work harder to make the tutors understand where I was coming from.

I soon became curious about the reason for this lack of diversity, and the more I looked, the more I discovered the hidden flaws in the field of architecture.

Although there is no thorough data on how many black female architects there are in the UK profession, a 2019 ARB survey suggested just 1 per cent of registered architects were black, while a 2016 DCMS survey reported that 90 per cent of architects in the UK were white, with 97 per cent coming from more advantaged backgrounds.

I was devastated. Having grown up in Nigeria, the problems I encountered were largely gender-related; architecture was not considered a suitable career for a woman like me. I had not expected barriers in Britain but was now facing the challenge of trying to enter an industry with both gender and race issues.

The summer of 2020 marked the lowest point in my architecture journey so far. With the Black Lives Matter movement, black architects felt empowered to use their voice and speak out about their experiences with racism and the problems they continued to face in an industry that refuses to listen to them. I must have read too many articles and seen too many dismissals of these experiences as I eventually broke down and had to take a break from social media.

It was an eye-opening experience for me because it made me question whether I really wanted this for myself. Would I be able to realise my dream of designing the next iconic building in Africa? More often than not, I have been made to feel like an outlier who chose the wrong degree when, in reality, my identities should not be a hindrance to my dreams. After all, since childhood, a career in architecture is all I have ever wanted.

I have come to embrace myself in all of my complexities and I shall hold my head high while smashing all those stereotypes that exist. In my third year, I had the pleasure of meeting two other black female architects studying at the University of Edinburgh, and it was a relief to finally open up about the lack of diversity in architecture school.

It was even more empowering to learn from the older women how to successfully navigate this space without losing myself in the process. In terms of the harsh realities of the wider architecture industry, the Bartlett report is only the tip of the iceberg. It also shows the resilience and courage of many students, who have, like me, chosen to stand out and stand up.

In my opinion, the architecture profession needs to declare a state of emergency with regards to its staggering lack of diversity. In doing so, we might realise how architecture firms like Zaha Hadid Architects have proven the value of having employees with diverse backgrounds in bringing new creative design solutions to the table. By committing to doing better to support the minority architects already in the industry, we will be able to make a case for the younger generations to join us.

It is my hope that I succeed in achieving my dream so I can inspire other girls like me to consider architecture as a career option. I shall not forget to ignite that fire within me and use it as a torch to enable me to navigate the barriers. I know that my dreams and identities are valid too because it is a myth that the field of architecture is only for white men. Last time I checked there was enough room at the table for us too. Oh, and if I do not find a seat at the table, I will design my own, because isn’t that what architects do?

Aisha Akinola is in her final year of an MA in Architecture at the University of Edinburgh