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South African Architecture Is Failing To Transform

There are only 65 black women who are registered architects in the country.

07/11/2017 11:31 SAST | Updated 07/11/2017 11:41 SAST
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New statistics from the South African Council for the Architectural Profession (SACAP) have revealed that there are only 65 registered black women architects in the country.

This makes up less than 2 percent of the 3,859 architects registered on the SACAP database, of whom 2,339 are white men and 262 are black men.

The low number of black women architects is indicative of the lack of transformation in this historically male-dominated field, experts say, as well as in the construction industry as a whole.

"Whether you're in government or in private practice or in the corporate environment, most people know there's this thing called a transformation agenda. But very few people understand the implications of such an agenda, and what work needs to be done to begin engaging," Johannesburg-based architect Althea Peacock told HuffPost SA this week.

Peacock is one of the founders of Lemon Pebble Architects, one of the country's first architecture firms that is 100 percent owned by black women.

"There are so many factors why black women are not practising," she explained.

"Not getting into a firm that will nurture them, not having the business acumen, not having access to a network of individuals who will either offer them work or patronage, or mentor them.

"There's also the issue of having to choose whether to raise a family or supporting a family and the risks implied. Although, I will say that anyone starting their own business has to take some kind of similar risk."

Peacock is also a lecturer at Wits University.

"A lot of issues also creep in during the time students are at varsity. I remember teaching first-year classes that were demographically quite evenly distributed, but by the time that group came to a master's level, the field thins significantly. So just the number of graduates reduce. Later, issues such as paying off student debt then outweigh the vision of starting a business," she said.

Since its establishment in 2015, Women In Architecture South Africa (WiASA) has been trying to address these issues, among others. But many in the field say WiASA has been slow to act on its initial promises.

"Our regional institutes and council, who should be at the forefront of this effort, are not," Peacock told HuffPost SA.

They're aware of the barriers to entry affecting women in architecture, SACAP CEO Marella O'Reilly said.

"Typically, young black women do not have access to the education stream required to study architecture -- maths, art and science -- and there is a low intake of women at SACAP-accredited architectural-learning sites," O'Reilly explained. These sites include most of the country's major universities as well select private institutions of higher learning.

Entry requirements -- an average of 60 percent in matric to get into the technical course and 70 percent to get into architecture -- is a large factor, she said. In an attempt to address this barrier to entry, SACAP introduced a recognition of prior learning programme this year.

But beside a high barrier to entry into diploma and degree programmes in architecture, there are other challenges facing black students generally. Most young black students for instance do not have access to sufficient funding to cover tuition and accommodation; on top of that, aspiring architects also have to budget for expensive materials without which they can't obtain their qualifications.

Because there are so few women in architecture generally, we find ourselves living in a world where problems faced by women in the built environment are solved mostly by men.

"Women and men have different needs and uses for public structures and systems," Andrew Fleming and Anja Tranovich argued in a recent Guardian article titled: Why aren't we designing cities that work for women, not just men?

"In areas where resources of all kinds are more limited, these disparities become especially acute, affecting women's safety, movement and income. This is particularly true in parts of the global south, where urban planning struggles to even keep up with basic use -- much less encourage gender equality," they wrote.