Architects Elsie Owusu and Shawn Adams: ‘Above the glass ceiling is a concrete ceiling’

Architects Elsie Owusu and Shawn Adams: ‘Above the glass ceiling is a concrete ceiling’

June 26, 2020

We all share the built environment – so how come only 1% of British architects are black? Two designers discuss the trouble with statues, town planning, and why it’s time to stop focusing on Le Corbusier

In a context in which just 1% of UK architects are black, Elsie Owusu stands out as a leading light. The 66-year-old architect, who was born in Ghana, co-led the refurbishment of the UK Supreme Court and London’s Green Park tube station, and is currently working on a house in Lagos for the British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare. Here she meets Shawn Adams, 26, an architecture student at the Royal College of Art in London and co-founder of POoR (Power Out of Restriction) Collective, a social enterprise dedicated to engaging young under-represented groups with the built environment.

What obstacles did you encounter when you were starting out?

Elsie Owusu: I remember being given advice for my interview at the Architectural Association (AA) in the 1970s. I had a wonderful mentor who said: “They will ask you what you’re going to do once you’ve qualified, and you must reply: ‘I’m going home to Africa to help my people.’” I said: “You know I live in Brixton? That’s my home.” And he said: “If they think you want to stay here as a qualified black architect and work in the UK, they’ll be less likely to give you a place, because they’ll think you’re going to be competing with ‘home students’.” I took his advice and now, looking back on it, he knew what he was talking about. It’s strange, because the AA was actually very international and cosmopolitan, with a big contingent of Caribbean students on government scholarships, but there were only two of us black students from the UK.

Shawn Adams: It feels like the racism isn’t so overt now, but it is still embedded in the way we are taught about architecture – only studying the Le Corbusiers and Frank Lloyd Wrights, never the black architects, such as Paul R Williams [the trailblazing African-American architect who designed 3,000 buildings in his 50-year career]. The indigenous vernacular architecture of black and ethnic minorities has always been seen as primitive and undeveloped, but now we’re realising that it can be much more sustainable than the way we use materials in the western world. But when you try to have a high-level intellectual conversation about African or Caribbean architecture, it’s still dismissed by most tutors.

Have you experienced racism in the workplace?

SA: You don’t see black people in higher positions. You go into it assuming that the sky’s the limit, but there’s this glass ceiling. If you go beyond and try to do too much, you’re seen as a problem. If you conform to the norm and try not to be the best, you’ll be fine.

EO: The glass ceiling is the least of our problems, because above that is a concrete ceiling. Looking back over 40 years, I’d say every three to five years I have come across some kind of obstacle which, in retrospect, I can see as institutional discrimination. You have to make the choice between having a big fight, leaving, or having to navigate your way around it. The alternative is to make yourself smaller in order to fit in with the structure. Ultimately, architecture is all about submission. If you’re not submissive, whether you’re black or a woman, you don’t fit.

SA: Yeah, there’s a culture of keeping your head down. You feel that if you make a problem public, it might have an impact on your career. I feel like if I want to get to a certain level, then I’m better off keeping my mouth shut.

EO: I feel quite lucky in the sense that I’m not employed. What I’ve tried to do over the past five years, since I’ve been unemployed or unemployable, is to leave a trail of situations in the public domain, like leaving a series of pebbles. So that when people find themselves in similar situations, they can see what happened. Social media is great for that. In the past, people would be browbeaten and they would just go away.

What effect might the killing of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests have on architecture?

SA: It’s the final straw that was needed to make everyone take notice. This momentum is allowing us to look at every industry. Before, it was like “racism doesn’t happen in our industry”, but now people are starting to listen. Awareness isn’t enough – we need to see physical change.

EO: I totally agree. I was really inspired by watching George Floyd’s brother, Philonise, speak to US Congress. How do you grow up in the projects and end up being able to challenge a judiciary committee so eloquently? He comes from an extraordinary culture that has survived 400 years of oppression. We’re seeing that you can move from being perceived as a supplicant to being a leader very fast, but we’ve got to keep those doors open and let people through. The price of freedom is eternal vigilance – this is not going to be the moment of change, unless people decide to make it the moment of change.

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