Celebrating ethnic diversity in architecture
As we celebrate Black History Month at Go Construct, here we highlight some of the figures from Black, Asian and ethnic minority backgrounds who have broken down barriers in the industry and made an impact on world architecture.
Robert P. Madison
Robert P. Madison, who celebrated his 100th birthday in 2023, is one of the most pioneering architects in the US. His story is truly inspiring. He served in the US Army in World War II, and on returning to civilian life wanted to resume his architecture studies at university in Ohio. He was refused entry by the School of Architecture because he was black, so he returned the next day in full military uniform, together with his Purple Heart, and the university relented.
Madison was the first African-American to graduate in architecture in the state of Ohio, and the first to be selected for the prestigious Fulbright Scholarship to study abroad. The firm he established, Robert P. Madison International, was also the first architectural practice in the Midwest of the US to be under black ownership. His family and firm experienced racial discrimination, but his practice was successful, with designs that included the US Embassy Office in Dakar, Senegal, Cleveland Public Library, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Cleveland Browns football stadium. Madison only retired fully in 2016, at the age of 93.
An inspiration to so many of his colleagues and countrymen, Francis Kéré was born in Gando, a small village in Burkina Faso, and has become an internationally renowned architect. From his very earliest days Kéré has overcome great challenges. He was the first child in his village to go to school, and while working as a carpenter won a scholarship to do an apprenticeship in Germany. He then studied architecture and graduated from the Technical University of Berlin at the age of 39.
Like Tabassum, Kéré has designed buildings that have improved the lives of the people he knows best – in Gando. In fact, he built the first two schools in the village, using sustainable materials and methods that aid ventilation, rainwater recycling and cooling. In 2022 Kéré was the first black architect, and the first African, to win the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize.
Marina Tabassum is one of the most notable architects working in Bangladesh today. She founded her practice MTA in 2005 and has held academic positions in architecture at the Universities of Toronto, Delft and Harvard. Alongside commissions such as the Bangladesh Museum of Independence and Bait Ur Rouf Mosque, Tabassum has used her architectural talents for the benefit of vulnerable people in her homeland. The mobile modular structure called the ‘Khudi Bari’ which she designed in 2020 has been used to provide temporary homes for displaced people in the Ganges Delta and the Rohingya refugee camp in southern Bangladesh. Also in 2020, Tabassum was listed by Prospect magazine as the third-greatest thinker of the COVID-19 era.
Balkrishna Doshi (1927- 2023)
Balkrishna Doshi was one of India’s most famous architects. He is most well known for being a pioneer of brutalist buildings in India and worked on commissions ranging from universities to social housing developments. He trained under Le Corbusier in Paris and was instrumental in the development of architecture as an academic subject in India. Among the institutions he co-founded were the School of Architecture and the School of Planning, Ahmedabad. In 2018 Doshi became the first Indian to be awarded the Pritzker Architecture Prize, the ‘Nobel Prize for architecture’.
Muzharul Islam (1923-2012)
Muzharul Islam was the founding father of modernist Bengali architecture. He designed many of Dhaka’s public buildings, including the National Assembly Building, the Bangladesh National Archives and Library, buildings at Jahangirnagar University, Chittagong University and the Faculty of Fine Arts at the Charukala Institute. Islam became very influential over several generations of Bengali architects and received a huge number of awards and accolades, including the Independence Day Award, Bangladesh’s highest state honour.
Carolyn Armenta Davis
An esteemed architectural writer, curator and Black historian, Carolyn Armenta Davis has done so much to bring to wider attention the work of modern African and Black Diaspora architects. The exhibition she curated, ‘Design Diaspora: Black Architects and International Architecture 1970-1990’, received huge praise and toured around the world for seven years. Davis has lectured widely on contemporary Black architects and has written extensively on the subject, including profiles for the Pritzker Architecture Prize, and a book based on her acclaimed exhibition. Aside from architecture, Davis has told Diaspora stories throughout her career. Her radio programmes on Black composers were broadcast during the 1970s, and another radio series, ‘Feminine Footprints’, profiled 65 trailblazing Black American women.
Special mentions: individuals helping to create ethnic diversity in architecture
Jeanne Gang is a white American architect, but she is leading the drive for greater equality and ethnic diversity in her industry. She closed the gender pay gap at her architectural practice, Studio Gang, in 2018, and believes that doing so can also lead to a more diverse workforce. As she wrote at the time: “Pay inequity signals a basic lack of respect and value for the contributions of women, and women of colour in particular … in fields dedicated to creative problem-solving, it is critical to bring diverse people and ideas to the table and create a supportive environment in which varied skills and voices can develop.” Gang sees architecture as a spur to social change, and several of her projects have had social and economic benefits as their objective.
Discover more about how the construction industry is becoming more diverse
Find out more about what construction is doing to improve ethnic diversity in the industry, read about successful ethnically diverse women in construction, and how Black, Asian and ethnically diverse history makes its presence felt in historic buildings.