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Architect Magazine Talks Diversity with Michael Marshall
10 July, 2020

Architect Magazine Talks Diversity with Michael Marshall

This article is reprinted in its entirety from ARCHITECT Magazine, July 10, 2020

There is much work to be done to make architecture more inclusive as both a profession and a discipline, some of it quite basic (enhanced recruitment and accessibility, appropriate role models in leadership positions), and some of it more complex (ferreting out biases built into both modes of practices and our conceptions of architecture). Michael Marshall, AIA, has a very concrete suggestion that might bring some small measure of accountability into the practice of including minority-owned architecture firms as part of teams bidding for larger projects, both public and private. An architect practicing in Washington, D.C. (and a former architecture school classmate of mine), Marshall recently wrote to his local AIA chapter with the following proposal:

“Just as there is certification of buildings that are LEED Certified (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), I propose an institutional rating system or certifications for architectural firms … that establishes good standing in achieving diversity and inclusion. This rating can be leveraged in a competitive fashion for winning commissions in the private sector or public sector. For the private sector developers of public or private projects, they can achieve certification for being good corporate citizens for bringing together diverse design teams, in return for regulatory approvals, as the LEED ratings are now a bonus and are sometimes mandatory depending on the jurisdiction. I think this can be a certification that will allow private sector firms to brand themselves as making socioeconomic inclusion a normal ‘business as usual’ process. Collaborations with small businesses, and woman- and minority-owned architectural practices could then have a business development advantage nationally.”

It’s a promising and intriguing proposal, even if it is more of an idea than a detailed plan. The model Marshall has chosen—LEED—certainly has its flaws. A small industry of experts and consultants has figured out how to game the system, so that its ratings have lost much of their relevance. That a little “swale” around a drainpipe and a carpet made from recycled content can help a building achieve a LEED Gold or Platinum rating in a project that is otherwise just another suburban block that promotes single-car commuting, and that in many other ways contributes to a waste of natural resources (and, in an additional affront, may be an eyesore), makes me seethe.

The University of the District of Columbia's student center, designed by Michael Marshall Design and CannonDesign

There is already an army of equally highly paid experts advising firms on how to sail around demands for both minority participation in government contracts and community participation in specially zoned areas. How could Marshall’s scheme, if fleshed out, avoid such pitfalls?

First of all, by being specific about the meaning of diversity, and second, by being equally clear about what true collaboration looks like. That means making sure that design teams reflect the communities in which they are working at every level, from the interns to the partners, and that those teams maintain their diversity throughout the design process. Too often these days—as Marshall notes and as I have experienced—African American consultants are relegated to subsidiary positions, or made silent partners while white designers do the creative work. Black architects may have too small a role in developing ideas or in schematic development; their tasks may be limited to helping sell the building or translate it into permit-ready drawings. As Marshall told me, what we want to avoid is the kind of bias from a developer that says: “‘We no longer need your services as an architect’ after winning a public/private partnership planning development competition… it’s happened to me that my firm was forecast to be part of the design team as a minority business enterprise, but then we were told, ‘We are through marketing for this project!’”

The proposed system must be specific about how teams are formed, at what phases in the project, and through what activities. The standards developed for the AXP internship program might offer a model, as they specify the experience and degree of participation aspiring architects must gain to be considered professional architects.

The lobby of the Howard Theatre in Washington, D.C., a project by Michael Marshall Design

I would add to Marshall’s proposal the need to show that the project in question will, as a result of the manner in which it was designed, offer measurable benefits to underserved communities. As Marshall told me, Washington, D.C. in recent decades has been the site of immense wealth creation and a wholesale transformation of neighborhoods—all to the benefit of mainly white users and owners. Many of these projects have benefited from tax breaks and other forms of support because they were in “enterprise zones” or were seen as lifting a predominantly African American city to new levels of prosperity. But, in reality, many of those projects only aided in the displacement of the Black population. We should have a system that measures the outcomes, and not just the inputs and outputs, of the design process.

There is a great deal of work to be done to bring this kind of basic economic equity into the profession—an effort that will also require focusing on confronting unconscious bias and conscious exclusion, both in the educational system and the discipline as a whole. Clear and real measures are needed, and Marshall’s idea is one promising way forward.

Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.