Matthew Lloyd and Pedro Gil on why the architectural profession needs to talk more openly about race

Matthew Lloyd and Gil Pedro

Matthew Lloyd and Pedro Gil

A conversation between Pedro Gil and Matthew Lloyd about race in architecture and practice.

Matthew and Pedro were directly introduced a year ago by the Architecture Foundation, as part of an initiative to connect established practices and with under-represented voices, within a wider commitment to diversifying the profession. So from the very outset, the question of race and representation within architecture was at the forefront of their conversations and subsequent working collaborations.

Matthew Lloyd Pedro when we first met you said to me “You don’t know how hard it is Matthew for me to practice architecture”. As an ordinary person, alright, as an ordinary white person, I haven’t exactly taken this for granted but I just haven’t seen it. But right from the start you told me that to be a Black architect here in the UK is yes, much much harder.

Pedro Gil I remember that first conversation very well. What I said then is that there are structural barriers, unseen barriers, that apply to architects of colour, Black architects, architects of Asian heritage. The second you move away from the white male monoculture, there are all these other layers that come in to play. But I do have to acknowledge my own privilege, firstly as a male architect: if I was a female Black architect things would be even harder. Then I have my light skin privilege: if my tone of skin was darker, then things would be even more difficult.

ML Yes, I’ve heard that before in other contexts.

PG There’s an academic term called ‘colourism’, that the darker your skin tone is on the spectrum the harder things are. And this doesn’t just apply to architecture, it goes from buying a ticket on the tube, right up to becoming the head of an institution. In that respect the announcement about Muyiwa Oki becoming president of RIBA is remarkable. From a global north or European perspective, the psychological image of a person of authority, i.e. an architect, a lawyer or a doctor, is a white man, maybe middle aged, maybe middle class. This is what people are screening for, for example when there’s a job advert.

ML What do you mean by screening?

PG What people are subconsciously looking for. The further away you are from this profile, the lower you will score in the assessor’s estimation. Actually, I have other advantages: even though I am a Black Colombian, I have a Hispanic name. I could be seen on an application form as white. On my mother’s side I am from Spanish European heritage. On my father’s side, African heritage, brought over to Colombia as African slaves. But if I had an African surname things would be very different. And these barriers, exist from a shop keeper right up to a doctor. But I understand my male and light skin privileges, and you Matthew will understand your white privilege.

ML A few things. It’s difficult for me, or alright white people, to say the things that you can say. Because we would have a fear that we were crossing a boundary. I am telling you that is a real issue: we can’t express ourselves, what we see, what we hear. I don’t know the language I am allowed to use. Are you Pedro a Black architect: am I allowed to say that? I struggle with that. So I move away from it, I do something else. You can say the things that I can’t say. Partly because I think I might get it wrong, or be offensive, or might be prejudiced when I wouldn’t want to be, or I might actually be being prejudiced. There’s a whole lot of reasons why it’s very hard to express yourself, even to you – but actually to you I can probably now say almost anything. I think of myself as a good person, or at least not a bad person. I am also much more to the end of my career than you: I feel as though this is no longer my time. Another perspective is that architecture is tough and I’ve always found it tough. That not to say I haven’t made a living out of it, we’ve got a good practice with a good portfolio given our size, and we have a lovely group of people here. But I have never, ever found it easy. Never found it easy to access the establishment. So, what I am saying here is I’ve got other things to worry about. If I were ever to put myself up for president of RIBA, I’d campaign on the single issue that architects need to be paid better. Then we could all have more resources to do better things. In reality, I am hamstrung by a nasty marketplace, which takes all of my time. I am also hamstrung by coyness, so it’s difficult to spend the time engaging with the issue of race. Which kind of leaves you nowhere. Yes, I guess I am a white privileged male – in fact I am a white privileged male – but I don’t feel it in the context of architecture because I have always found this profession so tough anyway.

PG There’s a lot there to unpack. I speak about this in lots of spaces – whether in academia, or advocacy or as an architect, or just as a person. We all need to get more comfortable talking about race. This is not a taboo subject. We’ve got a long way to go as a society, not just as architects, to get more comfortable talking about this. It is completely OK to call me, or someone of Black heritage, a Black architect. Or a Sikh architect or a Pakistani architect – in fact I think it’s good as it broadens that conversation. You do not need permission to talk about this. A couple of other points. Ask yourself how many Black architects have you met? So, there’s me – and I’m light skinned. How many others – that aren’t David Adjaye?

ML Not many.

PG It all starts in education. Our percentages and our numbers for Black registered architects are shameful: 0.8%. Of any Black heritage whatsoever. Think about that. The numbers to start with at the beginning of architecture school are just about OK. But as you go into Part 2 and then on to practice and registration big chunks have already fallen off. And this gets compounded as you go up in your career. And things are going in the wrong direction here. Ten years ago, the numbers were 1.2%. So, all this talk that we’ve woken up is simply not true.

ML So how do you change that? Where does it start?

PG For me, it’s about the redistribution of opportunity. University places need to be opened up for non-white students. The numbers getting through schools of architecture, and especially elite schools like the Bartlett where I teach, are too low. And the syllabus in academia needs to expand: our curriculum is, again, based on a white homogeny. The touchstones are Le Corbusier, Richard Rogers, Frank Lloyd Wright. Fine architects that they are, but where are the global south references, where are the African architects, the Chinese architects, the South American architects? They all exist and they have done so all this time, but they are not celebrated in the same ways. So children of colour inside our academic institutions can’t see themselves in the syllabus, and when they start to look at their heritage – which is one way to design to draw from within oneself – they get shot down. And when employers then want to pro-actively hire graduates of colour, they need to create space and apply more support, have more patience, because these students have structurally had it harder. And then when young architects of colour open up their practices, commissioners and decision makers really should take chances on these firms. As a result, we’ll have a richer environment for it, because right now we’re leaving a lot of talent on the table.

ML So you believe in positive discrimination across the board, in every dimension.

PG Yes, I do, but I don’t frame it quite that way. The terms I’d use are redistribution of opportunity and the other word I’d use is ‘equity’. The counter argument to this is, well Pedro, everyone deserves an equal chance and that’s where the insidious ‘all lives matter’ phrase comes from. This is insidious because not everyone starts from an equal position, so if you’re coming from a low-income family the chances of going for example to somewhere like Cambridge are very low indeed.

ML But that’s true of white or Black, if you come from any low-income family the chances of getting into architecture and emerging out the other side are negligible: in fact, shockingly those parts of the population hardly exist in our industry.

PG Well I do, I am a case study. I am a migrant, the son of cleaners, grew up in council housing, was educated in state education. I got into first Brighton then the Bartlett for Part 2. But I am the product of a different political time: had I been on that journey today I don’t think I would have made it. My point about inequality, it’s not race dependent – although minoritized communities are disadvantaged disproportionately in terms of economics. But let’s imagine a white working-class child does get into Cambridge to study architecture.

ML We’ve got prejudice on so many multiple levels no doubt about it, and noticeably in architecture. No doubt about it. But OK, it might happen.

PG The student’s middle-class classmates are at a huge advantage from the start, coming often from inter-generational wealth. They’ve spent the summer in France visiting art galleries, they can buy computers, produce their work in any way they like. They’ve had networks around them all their lives, been exposed directly or indirectly to artists, professors, chefs, engineers, lawyers – friends of the family or even not – constantly giving this young person advice. And rightly so. Those of working-class or minoritized communities simply don’t have these systems. What we can do as teachers and practitioners is provide those networks, both at university level and post-graduate level. This is what I try to do and a lot of my peers do also: we make ourselves visible and say I am here if you ever need advice. Putting together a portfolio, even printing a portfolio costs hundreds of pounds. If you’re coming from a tough home environment this can be almost impossible. Network and financial support can make a real difference, so that by the time this architect-in-waiting goes for an interview, they are better prepared.

ML So obviously you are an activist. And your own practice is majority Black?

PG Yes, we are 100% of minoritized background.

ML Would you employ a white architect?

PG You’ve heard of the term global majority? 85% of the world’s population is non-white. Therefore, the term ethnic minority is numerically incorrect. So our practice is 100% global majority, made up of East Asian, African and from South American representation. My vision is that one day 15% of our practice will be white, to represent the actual global minority.

ML Do you think the positions you are taking will hold you back?

PG Yes, very possibly. Even me saying these words does make me wince a little bit, as I ask myself should I be so hard-line? But even feeling uncomfortable about speaking these truths to power, I think is wrong. My discomfort here is wrong. I may be hindered with my approach, but likewise it will create opportunities in itself. I want my practice to reflect society, so that we have facets from every aspect of the world; I want every continent to be represented.

ML So you clearly see yourself as a global practice. I have another question: do you think white people seek you out to try and use you to their advantage? Do you think I am seeking you out to use you to my advantage?

PG No Matthew, you yourself have been very honourable to me and decent in your approach. And there are benefits to working with peer-sized practices, both culturally and economically. Your visits to our offices say to me, this is interesting, Matthew sees me the way I want to be seen, as a skilful designer. I am not an activist by choice – like everyone else I just want to be commissioned to be a creative practitioner. And you saw me like that from the start.

ML I know having worked with you that you’re a passionate architect. And you’re hungry and at the right age.

PG I wanted to say that in my family I am probably the most successful of all my ancestors, because I come from this impoverished Black background in Colombia Latin America. I am probably at the pinnacle really: I am aware of all the sacrifices that previous generations of my family have had to make to get me to this point. The struggles my parents have had are greater than mine: they often didn’t have enough money to feed their children – we were homeless at one point. My worries pale in comparison to my parents. So, it’s not enough to just be an architect – I need to honour my family by making a difference.

ML Final question: where do you want to be in fifteen years’ time, when you are my age?

PG So like you, I want to own my own building, with a high street presence and our practice within it. There might be a coffee shop there and a bakery. I want to have an international reputation as an architect. Like say Alejandro Aravena, who’s projects are relatively small, but who is so influential.

ML You are most certainly going to be busy.