As we celebrate Black History Month, I have chosen to explore the inequality that exists in the built environment and how we can fix this; most importantly I want to highlight the work of people in the design and construction industry that I find very inspiring and how they are actively incorporating ‘race’ consciousness in their work to improve the built environment.
It is often overlooked that the places that we live and the ways that our cities, towns, and rural areas look and feel create and reinforce racial, social, and economic inequality. This can be seen in segregated housing estates, access to ‘good’ schools and the availability of affordable, healthy food. These mechanisms often set borders that are defined more by power and politics than merit. So, despite hard work, higher levels of education and frugality, social and geographical mobility for non-white people often remains elusive.
It is important that we consciously create spaces that celebrate the diversity of our communities – here are a few architects and designers doing just that!
Yinka Ilori is a celebrated designer, known for his saturated colours, colliding cultural references, and buried narratives. Ilori in 2019 exhibited the Colour Palace — an Afro-futurist-style temporary pavilion of Nigerian-influenced shapes and hues on the lawns of the Dulwich Picture Gallery. It was, he commented, “a friendly provocation”: the pavilion’s aesthetic was closer to the African shops and street markets of Peckham, a poorer suburb two miles to the east, than the quiet surrounds of the Georgian gallery. The work was chosen by public vote after being shortlisted by a panel of experts. But not everyone appreciated it. One public figure, sent an email of protest to the architects saying Sir John Soane [the neoclassical gallery’s master architect] was a man of respect and I feel the Colour Palace does not share the attributes and values of Soane.”
When asked what he thought the commentator meant by that? Ilori said “I thought the email was interesting, because it’s funny how people feel like they have ownership of a space, that architecture can make them feel elitist, and that they can dictate what belongs there. The fact that a temporary structure made him feel so uncomfortable is amazing.” What mattered more than outrage from one objector, says Ilori, was the pavilion’s signal. “Having the Colour Palace in that space allowed someone like myself, and others from Brixton or Peckham or Hackney to say, OK, you know what? I can come to the Dulwich Picture Gallery and feel like I belong here, because I’m a Londoner. “Why should I feel like I don’t belong?”
SIR DAVID ADJAYE OBE
David Adjaye is an award-winning Ghanaian-British architect known to infuse his artistic sensibilities and ethos for community-driven projects. He believes that architecture as a prevalent force within all our lives should serve people and it too should take to the realm of egalitarianism.
One of his most inspiring works in my opinion is The Stephen Lawrence Centre which is both a memorial and a place of inspiration in honour of Stephen Lawrence, the architectural student murdered in 1993. The Centre is in Brookmill Road, Lewisham and opened in autumn 2007. It offers services to the general population of the Lewisham area but has a unique contribution to make in relation to improving the life chances of black Caribbean and African young people. The Centre works closely with partners in the area to tackle underachievement and to increase young people’s motivation to embrace education and overcome barriers to fulfilment. The Centre comprises meeting rooms, classrooms, IT labs, offices and exhibition spaces. The design of the ground plane is based on a drawing by the artist Chris Ofili. It is intended to encourage young people to enter the site and make use of the Centre.
Tara Gbolade is the winner of the prestigious RIBAJ Rising Star Award in 2018, Tara Gbolade is the co-founder of Gbolade Design Studio as well as the Paradigm Network, a professional network for architects who want to increase Black and Asian representation in the construction industry.
One of her notable works is the redevelopment of the Lloyd Leon Community Centre (LLCC) which is underway. This important community project is home to the award-winning Brixton Immortals Dominoes Club and the hugely impactful Brixton Soup Kitchen.
History: many of the invited 500 Jamaican passengers on board the SS Empire Windrush that arrived at Tilbury Docks, Essex on the 22nd June 1948 had travelled to Britain to help rebuild the economy by increasing workforce shortages caused by World War II, with many settling in Lambeth Council. They bought with them art, writing, dance, music and dominoes playing that would transform British culture.
The redevelopment of the LLCC will see the rich and diverse history of the community centre celebrated and enhanced, while adapting to the future to ensure the long-term economic, social and environmental sustainability of the tight-knit community.
It is important that we are mindful of the communities and histories of the buildings and locations we manage. The examples I have highlighted are each multifaceted, the LLLC redevelopment is a preservation of a historically significant site that is still vital for the community, the Lawrence centre is a commemorative space that is also focused on inspiring the future, and the Colour Palace combines the older antiquated grandeur with the colourful new. I hope this article inspires us all to challenge ourselves to actively seek out ways to foster inclusion in our industry and celebrate diversity.