Architectural award-winners are increasingly diverse, but we can’t stop pushing for better representation says Zoë Berman


If you were to seek a case-study industry that has successfully pioneered equality, the design and construction sector probably wouldn’t be the first place to look. Women have been admitted to the RIBA since the late nineteenth century, but the proportion of qualified female architects continues to hover under 30 per cent. The imbalance is even more extreme when it comes to who has, and has not, been granted recognition in industry awards.

Does that matter? Not everyone thinks so. I recently talked to the director of a construction company about the work done by Part W – a gender equity group that I co-founded – in pushing for women architects to be recognised with the Royal Gold Medal. He eye-rolled, groaned and asked “Why are you wasting your time on this? Architecture awards are so utterly irrelevant to the wider construction industry. They have no impact whatsoever”.

And yet this is precisely why I feel it necessary to push for awards schemes that look beyond shiny iconic buildings and the contribution of heroic lead designers: we need to change the picture we present of ourselves – and to ourselves – if our profession is to attract and retain a diverse mix of people, to signal a commitment to tackling resource shortages, and more widely to address the inadequacies of the built environment experienced by the many.

Top: Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara, co-founders of Dublin-based Grafton Architects, won the 2020 Royal Gold Medal.
Above: David Adjaye, founder of London-, New York- and Accra-based Adjaye Associates, won the 2021 Royal Gold Medal (ph: Alex Fradkin).

Looking at the pathways through the industry, the lack of gender equity in the design sector can’t be explained away by a lack of early career interest. Most schools of architecture report at least half of their intake as female, but women aren’t remaining in the sector to the point of becoming qualified in such high numbers. Something is putting them off – and the built environment’s high-profile awards contribute a glazed sliver into the glass ceiling that exists for minority groups by boosting the careers of those recognised, whilst overlooking others. The pattern of who wins, and what type of work is awarded, appears to validate certain kinds of architect, and types of practice.

In her book ‘History, Design, and Legacy: Architectural Prizes and Awards’, Dr Liz Walder pointed out the formula for winning an RIBA Royal Gold Medal that applied until very recently: be male, white, have won a number of other awards, run a large practice, and ideally be 66 years old. This data has been a sad indictment of our profession – evidencing that the industry struggles to find ways to recognise younger talent, female talent or the work of those from diverse backgrounds.

Part W began to campaign for the Royal Gold Medal to recognise female architects in 2019, and was thrilled to see Grafton Architects – founded by the female duo Yvonne Farley and Shelley MacNamara – named as the 2020 recipient. (Notably, they insisted the award being given not in their names but in the name of the practice, in recognition of the collective work of their team – challenging another way that problematic perceptions are formed in the architecture profession). There is further cause of celebration at the news that David Adjaye is to receive the Royal Gold Medal in 2021 – the first Black architect to be recognised. This is a step towards greater recognition of the contribution of Black architects more widely.

Lesley Lokko, recipient of the 2020 RIBA Annie Spink Award for excellence in architectural education, has taught in the UK, the USA and South Africa, and is currently establishing the African Futures Institute, an independent postgraduate school of architecture in Accra, Ghana (ph: Debra Hurford Brown).

And now there is further good news: Lesley Lokko has been given the biennial RIBA Annie Spink Award, established in 2000 to recognise individuals who have made an outstanding contribution to architectural education. She is the second woman to receive the award, the first being Christine Hawley, and the first person of colour. I was among a number of international practitioners and academics to nominate her, and share their delight at the result.

On receiving the nomination, Professor Lokko said “I am deeply humbled by the jury’s decision. This award is for everyone who came out in support of the Black Lives Matter protests, which put such difficult and challenging questions on the table for us all. It is also dedicated to the teachers and students at the Graduate School of Architecture at the University of Johannesburg, whose tenacity and inventiveness have charted a new path for architectural education. Together with the profound intellectual generosity I experienced as a student at the Bartlett School of Architecture in the 1990s, they remain crucial touchstones in my teaching practice, now and in whatever comes next.”

Recent victories suggest that the culture of awards is changing, which should be vocally celebrated. At the same time, we must acknowledge there is still much more to do”

These recent victories are overdue, but suggest that the culture of awards is changing, which should be vocally celebrated. At the same time, we must acknowledge there is still much more to do. Better representation in awards schemes is not evidence of structural change in the profession, but can help to continue that process. That is why Part W will continue to push for awards to look beyond the usual suspects, to interrogate assumptions about where quality or value lies in architecture, and to question whose interests are being served in bestowing honours.

We need awards that directly connect with and recognise work that addresses the issues of our time. We need awards to be given to practitioners who are as diverse as the world’s population – and the commissions that usually follow. We have seen that change is possible. We need to keep going.