From the Ground Up: Addressing Systemic Racism in Canada’s Architecture Schools

Created by Carleton University architecture student Lara Sedele, this digital collage was one of over 400 pieces submitted to the school’s annual Director’s Project drawing competition. The competition invited students to respond to the theme “The Fierce Urgency of Now.”

Since last spring, Canadian schools of architecture have been both destabilized and galvanized by sustained student activism. Professors and program administrators have been responding in a variety of ways to the call to more urgently and drastically rethink both our relation to traditional architectural education and our paths forward.

As chair of the Canadian Council of University Schools of Architecture (CCUSA), Canadian At-Large Director on the board of the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture, and a member of the Racial Equity and Environmental Justice Task Force within the School of Architecture of the University of Waterloo—and I should also say from the privileged position of a white tenured faculty member—I have found myself participating in many conversations motivated by this rethinking.

CCUSA is a council of the directors of accredited professional architecture programs in Canada. Prompted by the pandemic and the calls to actions that occurred in most schools over the past year, the group has been meeting frequently to consider ways to share resources and collectively take action. What needs to be done to implement meaningful changes in our education, discipline and profession? The fight centres on the need to stand against anti-Black racism specifically, and systemic racism more broadly, although it also extends to the connected issues of sustainability and environmental justice.

What does racial equity look like in architecture? For decades, questions of equity, diversity and inclusivity have been considered of importance, but it is a slow road for institutions and government to go beyond simply issuing EDI statements. Even when there is a will, decolonizing practices or changing policies is not something that can happen overnight. As attention expands from a focus on gender balance to addressing other under-represented groups in our programs, it is clear that there are still many ingrained barriers to the work that must be done.

For example, there are often hurdles to the seemingly straightforward establishment of scholarships dedicated to Black students. In Ontario, even with funding in place, one has to work through the Ontario Human Rights Commission’s guidelines to develop a rationale for a proposed scholarship. This process ultimately requires providing benchmark data that has yet to be collected—since such data collection is another area in which universities are lagging. Better support is needed for advocates and administrators to move through these steps.

Even more problematically, many Canadians still refuse to acknowledge that there are faults in our practices that continue to negatively impact Black and Indigenous persons, along with People of Colour. There is a need to make it clear that racism—as well as systemic racism—indeed exists in Canada. We are complacent as we compare ourselves to our neighbours to the South. But we tend to congratulate ourselves on a form of pluralism that, as theorized by Charles Taylor, is premised on a fraught ideal that there are no second-class citizens and that we are essentially an inclusive society.

Race and equity scholar Kathy Hogarth points to some of the issues around this idea of integration. She writes: “The importance of integration as a stated goal of multiculturalism in Canadian society has been well established in the rhetoric of dominant discourse. How integration unfolds within the White space for racialized immigrants still needs to be understood, particularly given the nuances of culture, ethnicity, gender, and immigration. In dominant discourse, integration is positioned as an individual action that one must take in order to fit in with Canadian society. […] This becomes particularly problematic for the reason that members of the dominant group get to determine whether a person had truly integrated and is deserving of belonging without addressing the structural issues, such as racism, that create barriers to integration.” 1

This conception of integration as the ability to “fit in” within an existing structure applies on many levels to our architecture schools, along with the discipline and profession. 2 A tension between entrenched structures and new practices affects the ability of architecture to pivot towards more inclusive, equitable viewpoints.

We see, for instance, an ever-present push and pull between the professional world and academia. Representatives of professional bodies often want to ensure that what students learn in school lines up with what the profession needs, while educators strive to open up doors to new potential modes of fulfillment in the discipline.

Perhaps more accurately, we could speak of a dual pressure on the next generation of architecture graduates: on the one hand, from practicing architects and legislative bodies that wish to impress upon them the skills and methods that will fulfill their current vision of the profession, and on the other, from educators who may struggle to relinquish the European foundations upon which they themselves were likely introduced to the discipline. (Of course, building practices and traditions have existed everywhere and at all times, but the particular architectural education and its associated definition of a discipline that we have inherited goes back to the European academies and a corpus of work originally assembled by nineteenth-century European historians, even though some attempted to include precedents from around the world.)

Looking with a historical lens, one also sees inequities at the foundation of the discipline. Architecture—when formulated by fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Italian theorists as Architettura or Re Aedificatoria—is a discipline that was “re-invented” as distinct from mere construction in an effort to valorize a practice to potential patrons. To be fully equity-minded, we should all be abandoning this story, which is fundamentally based on privilege, as well as on actions that frequently served as tools for subjugating both people and territories. But of course, such a wholesale abandonment would also do away with all of the positive aspects of architecture, as one of the few fields that embodies creative inquiry, cross-disciplinary collaborations, and holistic considerations of a more-than-human living environment shaped by intersecting ecological, social and technological forces.

To tackle the more immediate challenges at hand, the questions that must be urgently addressed range across a breadth of critical issues. How can the architecture curriculum be more inclusive across all courses—history, studio, technology, etc? Who does this profession attract, and who does it leave behind? What role does architecture play in furthering questions of social and spatial justice? (I write this as the AIA announces “new rules on the design of justice facilities.”) What do we value in the education and works of architects? Which projects receive awards, and who do we name and recognize as leaders in the field? Some of these questions are not new, and there has been progress, but there is more work to be done.

Students who come to study architecture discover a path through what they are taught, or in opposition to it—either fitting the mold or learning to create pockets to breathe within it. As instructors, many of us are so infatuated by the professional discipline we sustain that we do not really want to hear students asking for something different. This alone constitutes a barrier that we have yet to address, if indeed we want our profession to be truly inclusive.

So we have work to do, and not only in schools of architecture and their respective universities. As a profession, architecture still remains largely male, and largely white. While the gender balance and racial makeup of the student body has been changing rapidly over the past decades, the faculty complement lags behind—and professional leadership even more so. Gender balance has been on our minds for a while, but we speak very little of other traditionally under-represented groups, whether at the level of schools, practices, or professional organizations. It is hard to address a problem if we do not actively track the gap (or our progress in bridging that gap) across the continuum. A starting point is to look at representation within student populations and faculty complements at the schools of architecture, through the internship process, and in practice, including at senior levels of leadership.

Students are loudly and clearly calling for certain changes. Last year, a series called the Canadian Architecture Forums on Education (CAFÉ) ran workshops for schools across the country, coordinated by University of Manitoba professor Lisa Landrum in collaboration with CCUSA. The biggest concern raised by all participants was a desire to refocus architectural education on sustainable and equitable built environments. Students called for urgent attention to (1) climate change and environmental stewardship, (2) equity and inclusion, (3) mental health and well-being, (4) meaningful community engagement, and (5) culturally relevant, regionally meaningful design amid the dominant forces of capitalism. Directly or indirectly, all top five concerns point to how architectural education and the profession could become more inclusive and could better advance racial equity and environmental justice.

Within each school, work to address racial equity is moving forward in different ways: through town hall meetings, written commitments, hiring external auditors and consultants, setting up task forces and working groups, and allocating more resources to empower existing committees on equity and diversity. At the larger level, universities are moving with more or less speed to advance in their fights against racism and to promote the decolonization of the institution. A few universities have been able to quickly move forward in opening up positions for Black and Indigenous scholars, or in calling for candidates with expertise in social, spatial, and racial justice. All of this is happening as educational institutions respond to the pandemic, and amid widespread speculation as to what the world will look like in the next five or ten years. In other words, our aspirational idealism is bounded in broader realities, as well as being part and parcel of these larger movements.

Still, at almost every Canadian architecture school, whether in parallel or in collaboration with University efforts, an active student group and school committee have been focused on equity and anti-racism work. Many groups include both faculty and student representation, and seek external perspectives as needed. Across these groups, there is work being done on reforming the curriculum and studio culture, on hiring and admissions, as well as on the mode of delivery and evaluation of material. Much of this work benefits from the wealth of events that have been organized both in Canada and beyond, through organizations such as the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture, Emergent Ground for Design Education, the Global Architectural History Teaching Collaborative (GAHTC), the National Organization for Minority Architecture (NOMA) and Dark Matter University, but also from pre-existing and ongoing student-led initiatives around equity and sustainability. Many provincial associations, as well as the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada, are also picking up speed on equity, inclusion and diversity agendas.

In the midst of all these actions, there is movement forward, but it is messy, and there will probably be no “getting it right.” Change will always come too slowly, and there will always be more to do. Significantly though, issues have come to the fore in ways that are clearer than ever before. For example, we’re discussing how equity can impact how we do research, the type of research we value, and how peer-reviewing processes are managed and the people they favour. Just as importantly, everybody, bar none, is looking at those issues and having these conversations. Still, we are strained and separated by a pandemic that is forcing most discussions online. It’s both an incredible opportunity to pool resources, and a devastating situation. Some exchanges turn into polarizing rather than productive conversations, lacking a table as a common ground around which to gather.

But let’s state this clearly: everyone is willing to change—young and old, conservatives and revolutionaries, educators and practitioners, students and faculty. Yes, we are all destabilized, but also stimulated to move forward in this work. It is also clear that the work will involve both changing ourselves and the collective. A transformed architecture community will only arise from our willingness to tackle this as individuals, as well as together as educators, students and practitioners.

The desire to do this work ultimately stems from the way we value architecture as an incredibly powerful vehicle—if flawed and marked by a problematic history. We believe that architecture itself is of interest, a word that at its root represents a social act—inter-esse, between being. As monuments are being toppled and their plinths remain, perhaps we need to do the opposite as a discipline: let’s topple the pedestal, and reinvent the ground under the feet of a profession that must continue to change.

1 Hogarth, Kathy. “Home Without Security and Security Without Home,” Journal of International Migration and Integration, Vol. 16, Iss. 3 (Aug 2015): 783-798.

2 On the distinction between discipline and profession, see Sharon E. Sutton, “Power, Knowledge and the Art of Leadership,” Progressive Architecture, May 1992, pp. 65-68.

Architect Anne Bordeleau is the O’Donovan Director of the School of Architecture at the University of Waterloo. 

You may enjoy reading the companion piece to this article, Voices of the Unheard, by recent graduate Jaliya Fonseka.