The Bartlett


Transcript: Black Voices in the Built Environment

In this episode, we explore the role of racism and colonialism in the construction of the built environment and how we can improve.  


architecture, black, people, built, environment, spaces, architects, legacies, bartlett, conversation, colonialism, called, recruitment, podcast, students, studied, contributions, lecture, talking, school 


Christoph Lindner, Omoleye Ojuri, Kudzai Matsvai 

Christoph Lindner  00:03 

Hello, and welcome to Building Better a podcast about the cities and human spaces we build worldwide that asks, how can we build better  

Christoph Lindner  00:16 

My name is Christoph Lindner, and as well as being your host for this podcast, I'm the Dean here at UCL's Bartlett Faculty of the Built Environment. In each episode, I will be sitting down with experts from the Bartlett and the built environment sector to explore new ideas and solutions for some of the big issues that affect our daily lives, our societies and our planet. 

Christoph Lindner  00:49 

To our returning listeners, thank you for joining us for season three, to our new listeners welcome. And if you enjoy this episode, you may want to listen to seasons one and two, which you can find wherever you're listening to this podcast. 

Christoph Lindner  01:13 

This past month, we have been celebrating Black History Month here at the Bartlett. And we've been doing that through talks, workshops, and our series Black Perspectives in the Built Environment, which explores architects, researchers, and activists who have shaped both the world around us and the Bartlett itself. This episode is a continuation of our Black History Month programming. And I'm very aware in this conversation that I am a white man, and as dean of the Bartlett that I represent this school. I want to be part of this conversation, because it is important that everyone plays their part in decolonising spaces and we all have a responsibility to practice anti racism. I see my role in this podcast as listening. As with many of our other episodes, our guests today are people who were able to bring their work their experience and their research into this conversation. And I'm looking forward to being guided by them as we discuss the ways in which racism and colonialism have influenced design and what is being done to build more inclusive spaces. 

Christoph Lindner  02:36 

Today, I'm joined by Omoleye Ojuri, an honorary lecturer at the Bartlett School of Sustainable Construction, a senior lecturer at Liverpool John Moores University and a World Bank Scholar. Omoleye worked as a quantity surveyor for five years before being awarded the Joint Japan World Bank Graduate Scholarship for her Master's. She was also the recipient of the Schlumberger Foundation Faculty for the Future Fellowship, which funded her doctoral research on construction project management. Alongside her research and teaching, Omoleye is an author, and she's the founder and coordinator of Full Excellence Foundation For Women.  

Christoph Lindner  03:23 

I'm also joined by Kudzai Matsvai, an architectural activist and founder of the Black Collective at the University of Liverpool, and the Wedzera network. She hosts workshops and talks that share Black history and challenge the existing erasure of Black contributions to the built environment. The Black Collective is a student led EDI group fighting for racial equality in architectural education. And their work includes collective action campaigns that call to remove the names of colonizers from spaces on campus. And the Wedzera Network is a nonprofit organization, sharing resources that empower people to take action against systemic miscarriages of justice.  

Christoph Lindner  04:16 

And before we get started, just a quick content warning. In this episode, we will discuss racism and colonialism within the built environment and the systemic violence that these have caused towards Black communities around the world. 

Christoph Lindner  04:42 

So as a starting place, I want to ask both of you what for you is the legacy of racism and colonialism in the built environment, Omoleye? 

Omoleye Ojuri  04:57 

You know as a researcher I'm usually intrigued whenever I travel, and I've been to many regions, many places in global south. So whenever I take a trip, travel or study, I'm usually fascinated by the architecture, even built environment, the type of building this type of architecture is an evidence of the legacies of colonialism, of apartheid. For example, even the distribution of public green space, introduction of trees, in built environment, and allocation of gardens are evidence of the inequalities of different racial groups. For example, I went to Cape Town, Cape Town, very beautiful place, there I just observed the British style actually influenced the architecture, the design, the allocation of notable parks, the botanical gardens, and very, I mean, big trees, imported even from other parts of the world, not only in South Africa. So these to me, ok Cape Town is a low density affluent area in South Africa, while in Johannesburg, for example, of course, the architecture is quite different. And also, the evidence of the general lack of trees. The legacies left behind is the evidence of the colonial administration, which was fuelled by the arrangement, the urban planning, even if not only the urban planning, and the architecture, even the name, where the neighborhoods, the residential neighborhoods where we have the black people, where the state is usually called townships, while the name of the affluent, the low density area called another name, these are the things that are still ingrained to the current day, the inequalities in the distribution of public space, green infrastructure, even the choice of plants, the allocation of notable gardens. 

Christoph Lindner  07:16 

So in a way, I'm almost wondering if we're asking the wrong question, what is the legacy of racism and colonialism in the built environment? Maybe it's better to ask, are there is there anywhere that is not shaped in some way by that legacy? What are your thoughts Kudzai? 

Kudzai Matsvai  07:30 

For me, I think that the legacies lie in who is allowed to continue to add to the built environment. And by what that what I mean by that is, in the for my dissertation, I looked a lot at inequality, racial inequalities in architectural education, and the RIBA Education Statistics for 2019 actually showed that the group that is struggling the most to make the journey from part one to architect is Black students. And I think that the creation of the kind of elite nature, and the elitism around the architectural profession is evidence of the lasting legacies of colonialism and racism in the built environment. Because the barriers that are created are then stunting who is able to shape the spaces that we experience. And a lot of the time when you hear things like when you read articles about you know, like the first Black architect in the UK, I always think that that in itself is the way that colonialism and racism are still kind of managing to steer the conversation, because architects existed in Black and brown countries before the term was, you know, taken over and given to us and you were given these structures to get to the position of architects, I always use the example of my granddad - every weekend, when I was a child, I was born in Zimbabwe, we would go and visit his village. And he built all the structures, he built those by himself. So by definition, he was an architect before the terms were given to us. And we were told that there's this very difficult way of getting to them. So even that in itself becomes an erasure of who is recognized and who is allowed to make worthwhile contributions to the built environment and the spaces that we experience. And I also think it's a similar point to Omo's, where she was talking about the distribution of amenities and green spaces, because I actually currently live in Tower Hamlets. And I'm kind of on the border of the really nice part that's Canary Wharf, and the not so nice part. And I always noticed that when I go to the really nice part, that's Canary Wharf, the faces a lot of the time are white, and I feel uncomfortable in those spaces because I feel like I don't belong there. But if I go, you know, the other way, where it's dilapidated and rundown and you know, not as well looked after all of a sudden the number of Black and brown people that I see increases, and immediately I feel more comfortable in those spaces that I'm not questioning my position in those spaces. So there's still this kind of feeling of not belonging that's been created by spatial hierarchies and the distribution of things like amenities and green spaces. 

Christoph Lindner  10:22 

Absolutely, in what other ways is, in your experience, racism perpetuated through the way that we build, design, or act in spaces. 

Kudzai Matsvai  10:36 

As a student, I studied at the Liverpool School of Architecture for all five of my years, both my bachelor's and my master's, and all of the contributions to architecture from Black architects that I know about now, as a master's graduate, I taught myself. So in my five years, there was never once a point where a precedent by a Black architect was given or we studied spaces created by Black architects, even the study of architecture in, you know, Africa, the Caribbean, and places like that, I think we had one lecture, once in second year. So if we're actively erasing Black people and their contributions, what we're saying is that automatically, there's this good architecture and bad architecture, and a lot of the time what's good, and what's worth noting, and what's worth copying and what's worth looking at, is done by middle class white men. And it always goes boils down to, for me, the diversity that's within the profession, if you don't have people who look like me designing spaces and have experienced the things I've experienced designing spaces, then you're never going to get spaces that speak to everyone, we're continuing to perpetuate this racism within the built environment, it does come down to what we're teaching. And what we're saying is worth teaching, even going back to things like learning about, you know, the ruins of the Colosseum, which is always, you know, amazing and being told to go and see them. But I'm from Zimbabwe, and the ruins of Great Zimbabwe, I actually wrote one of my third year essays on them, and I wasn't able to really find anyone to give me guidance, because they didn't really know anything about them when they're equally as impressive in terms of what they are, what they mean, historically, but it's this constant erasure of contributions by a certain group of people that continues to perpetuate the idea of kind of importance for one group and not for others. And I think that then bleeds into every single aspect of what we design, how we design, and it continues to push a narrative that is very skewed. 

Christoph Lindner  12:39 

Yeah, there's some very powerful links between what you're both saying about historically, and even currently, the erasure of certain identities, certain geographies, certain histories, and then how to move forward, we need to create more presence, more visibility, more representation, do you have examples of projects or people that are actually making a positive difference in the built environment, creating more visibility, presence for Black people in a way that you find inspirational or transformative? 

Omoleye Ojuri  13:19 

Okay, 2020, I was supposed to pick up a module to teach Management Theory and Practice and leadership in this environment and all that. So when I picked up this, this rule, I decided to have a check on what other previous module leaders had worked on, you know, just to have an idea. And I was, I mean, pleasantly surprised, because now you are talking about positive aspects - the module leader wasn't Black, then I went through the slides, then I saw the extent of the inclusion of different racial groups, in his lecture notes. I didn't tell him actually, I'm saying this here. But I was like, wow, this is this is good, you know, trying to explain these using that slide. Of course, in my own preparation for my lectures, I would have been very inclusive but, even for the fact that a non-Black person did that was very impressive to me. So meaning that there was that intention, I mean, to really make his lecture, all encompassing, to be inclusive, because the audience is actually global. So that's the point the audience, the classroom full of, okay, the local, full of Africans, Asians, so why not - why not make the lecturers? 

Christoph Lindner  14:46 

Kudzai, are there any examples that you would point to? 

Kudzai Matsvai  14:48 

I think for myself, sadly, I haven't seen any examples within the current landscape when it comes to the schools of architecture and practices that exist in the UK, people are trying and there are things that be that are being done amazing things that are being done. I actually did when I did my dissertation, I did a, I did a study of what was being done by schools across the UK to combat racism. And UCL actually came out on top. And there are other schools like Oxford Brookes, who have I believe, a Black - Celebrating Black Excellence program for students. So there are things being done. But I think in terms of something that is, in my opinion, consistent and really kind of challenging within the current landscape, I don't think that anyone has kind of really done the job yet, where I do start to see examples that are impressive things that I like to call architecture adjacent. So I've been learning about a lot of a lot of organizations recently, one of which I've actually started working for, Beyond the Box Consultants, and also Create London who actually work kind of on the periphery of architecture to bring in people who may not have had the opportunity or the just the understanding of what architecture is. And they those to me, organizations like that, that are starting to come through and are starting to work kind of it's almost like they have to work outside of actual architecture to actually then penetrate and make a difference within architecture. Because architecture, the way it's set up. And this systemic nature that we talked about, it's so difficult, I think, to actually make a difference within the profession that you kind of sometimes have to take a step out of it. And work being done by organizations like this. For example, one of the projects that I'm working on at the moment is called the People's Pavilion. And what it actually does is it encourages young people in seven boroughs of East London to come and design a pavilion that eventually they'll see the winning one being constructed in full and they will program events to happen in this pavilion. So and I think that's where you're starting to make a difference where you start to tackle it before people are going into university, because a lot of the time once they're in university people, like myself, once we're in university, it's almost too late to start to tackle it because you're already thrown into an environment that you're uncomfortable in, and you're kind of really having to fight constantly to get to the end result. So I think organizations like the ones that I've mentioned, are the ones that are kind of working on the periphery of architecture, not necessarily inside of it, but on the periphery to begin to equip people and open doors for people that might not necessarily get the kind of leg up that other people going into the profession get. 

Christoph Lindner  17:44 

Right now, we are celebrating Black History Month. And I'm wondering in your experience, both in the in the fields that you work in, but also the programs that you've taught in, um, to what extent is Black History Month embedded in the curriculum currently, 

Omoleye Ojuri  18:02 

I feel that is not enough, is not enough, because, you know, it should be embedded into I mean, all year round curriculum framework, I'll still get to the built environment. But I just want to say that it is something that's it is something that people children at different educational categories should be aware of, is part of our history. The earlier that gets to that the better, even before gets into the university, to embed it into national framework, national curriculum framework, students should learn about it right from reception, if it's possible, and I know it's possible nursery, A levels and all that. It makes the work easier by the time to get to get to the uni. So in terms of recruitment, because representation matters. When you look at somebody that looks like you teaching during first time, having several publications, doing a fantastic job, it inspires both, I mean, new young generations and even the ones to come. And apart from that, what are the other things we can do in the built environment is to deliberately make the works of Black people visible, the Black scholars, we have the reading list, the books to be read, there are amazing books out there, that are produced, published by Black people. That is meaning that the first thing is to make to to be conscious. I'm going to do this I'm going to include this in my reading list and also cases different cases, different projects handled by Black scholars in the built environment can be cases to be studied. So these are some of the things we can do apart from recruitment, deliberate effort of putting the work out from Black people visible in reading lists, making their cases studied and, and many more. 

Kudzai Matsvai  20:05 

I think that the curriculum in architecture has such a long way to go. Being at the Liverpool School of Architecture, like I said, I can only ever remember learning about West African architecture once in second year. And the lecture itself was actually taught by a white man. So we were learning about West African architecture, but through the lens of a white man. And I think it goes back to what Omo was saying about representation and recruitment, because I very much struggled in my undergrad because there were no Black tutors. And in my three years of undergrad, I had no Black people coming in to critique my work or the - none of the crits looks like me. So that really led me to start to question my place in the profession. And I actually took a year out to try and figure out whether or not I actually belonged here because I really struggled with the idea of not seeing anyone who looked like me. And then the issue with that I began to have with things like reading lists was that everyone seemed to just be copying and pasting the same three books on race. Every time I asked anyone about, you know, what was good to read about race, I would just be recommended, oh, the UCL Race and Space. And then if I wanted anything other than that, no one kind of had anything that they could suggest to me outside of that. So it felt like they there was kind of this effort being made to decolonize. And so but it was a very surface level where it was like, we'll put two books on the reading list. And we'll maybe mentioned David, one of David Adjaye's projects in, in in a lecture or a tutorial. And that's it. It was like pulling teeth, trying to get people to recognize contributions by Black architects to recognize books or projects by Black architects. For me, actually, I will always say that the thing that got me through my master's was the new head of school, who was appointed Professor Ola Uduku, was appointed in 2020, when I was starting my master's, and for me seeing her every day really made me believe that I could get to the end of the course. And she was the only Black person in staff, but she was someone who looks like me had experience like me, I could talk to her about things that I was interested in. And I finally felt like I had a place and I, I finally felt like my interests in architecture were valid. And I had someone that I could kind of look up to who could say to me, if I did it, then so can you. And I think it's within the curriculum, it's never going to change until we get, like Omo was saying, an influx of diverse staff who can then push that material in an authentic way, and really be role models to people who need that so desperately. 

Christoph Lindner  22:52 

How do we do that? So what are the impediments? You know, this conversation has been going on for many years, why why are we not making faster, deeper, more meaningful progress? 

Omoleye Ojuri  23:04 

I was I was sent do my PhD. Then I came across an advert, I was not even planning to apply, because it was in Australia., I wasn't planning to move to Australia. But I was very surprised that things like this happen. Melbourne University in Australia, School of Design and Construction, I just saw the adverts and and the only thing okay, you must be-you must have PhD, all the criteria listed. And the last one, you must be a woman. I wrote the dean. So she had a mission that her faculty must be 50% men and women equality! So what are why am I saying this? I'm just really using this as an illustration how the recruitment exercise can be done deliberately by having a quota of this particular set of people we have we have the representation of students, we have them. So why don't you have also them as mentors as lecturers so that the it will be very global in that sense. 

Kudzai Matsvai  24:06 

I am personally a big fan of the bold approach of the positive discrimination. But I think that there are several things that I think need to be tackled. First, I think it's acknowledging that a lot of the school environments that we have created are not ones that Black professionals want to work in. So I would look at that if I was applying to go somewhere and I was going to be you know, moving to a school, I would say, well, if there are no Black staff, then potentially every issue that has to do with race is going to be pointed in my direction, whether I'm qualified or want to take that on or not. So why would I want to go and be in that environment and potentially have things that I don't want to be involved with put on me because of the color of my skin? So I think it's important for schools to begin to acknowledge and to just take stock and look around and say is this an environment that welcomes diverse individuals and you know, more to the point Black people, are we working in an environment that, and have we created an environment that Black professionals will want to come and work in? And I think for a lot of the schools, the answer to that, unfortunately, is no. Because again, going back to my dissertation, another thing that I looked at was the makeup of staff in the 55 RIBA accredited schools, and the number of schools that have no Black staff was alarming. And so I can see how Black people would be turned off of those environments, because you never want to go somewhere willingly, where you are the only one. 

Christoph Lindner  25:39 

So this podcast is called Building Better. And before we wrap up, I really want to ask both of you to look towards the future, think 1015, even 50 years ahead, and what are your thoughts on what we need to do in order to build better in our world. 

Omoleye Ojuri  26:05 

So how to build better society has to start from to say the truth and to use our voice to keep talking about about it, to keep talking about colonialism, to talk about how it's affecting built environment, how built environment is used to perpetrate it, when you go to a country, a former colony, and this is what you see, and how we can move beyond that. And of course, in our we have talked about that in our different jobs to different vocation, you know, to ensure that Black people's works, achievements are visible, deliberately, intentionally. So we use our voice, we ensure that we have a deliberate strategy to make our workplace inclusive. And for - it is from inclusion that will have innovation that will help to address various problems and build sustainable society. 

Christoph Lindner  27:03 

Thank you, thank you, Omo. And Kudzai, what are your thoughts, looking towards the future, how can we build better? 

Kudzai Matsvai  27:12 

I think that in order to build better, the onus needs to be shifted for who's responsible for solving a lot of the problems because I'm not bothered by conversations, I will talk and I will educate but what I don't have kind of the energy or time for any goal is conversations that go nowhere. And I think that's what a lot of practices and institutions are doing is they keep on encouraging conversations, but then go nowhere, when most institutions and most practices have more than enough resource to begin to facilitate positive action. All they need to do is now take the things that you learned in the conversations and put some put some resources behind it and really make something happen. And I think we've gotten into the trap where everyone is just kind of really promoting great conversations. And that that kind of is where it ends. And I think in order for us to build better, we need to move beyond the conversation, and more people need to begin to facilitate positive action to happen. So yeah, I think it's we've had the conversations and yes, continue to have the conversations. But now what we really need to start seeing if we're going to build better is action across the board. 

Christoph Lindner  28:33 

Kudzai I think that is the perfect note on which to wrap up our conversation, a powerful a compelling call to action. I want to thank both of my guests for today's conversation. If you want to learn more about either of their work, there are links in our show notes, including to an online seminar that Kudzai is delivering for the Liverpool Architecture festival on Wednesday the 26th of October at 6:30pm. And her talk celebrates and spotlights the role of Black architects and discusses their impact and legacies. You can also find a link to Omoleye's book Breaking Stiff Boundaries, which is about a woman from the global south and the challenges she faced in pursuing a doctoral degree at an elite global research university. 

Christoph Lindner  29:35 

You have been listening to Building Better the Bartlett podcast. This podcast was presented by myself Christoph Lindner, and brought to you by The Bartlett, UCL's Faculty of the Built Environment.  

Christoph Lindner  29:49 

It was edited by Cerys Bradley, and featured music from Blue Dot Sessions.  

Christoph Lindner  29:56 

I was joined today by Omoleye Ojuri and Kudzai Matsvai.  

Christoph Lindner  30:02 

If you would like to hear more of these podcasts, subscribe wherever you download your podcasts or visit ucl.ac.uk/bartlett/buildingbetter. And of course you can follow us @theBartlettUCL. See you next time.

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