Posted Sep 14 2023 | By Aaron Smith

Diversity in architecture – where are the working class voices?

Back in April I visited my old High School, a secondary school in Salford (pictured), to give a talk on my own personal route into the architecture profession and the routes available today for students. I attended the school from 2007-2011. The year I started at the school it was ranked 3406 out of 3579 schools nationally, with only 20% of students leaving with five A* – C GCSEs. Its standards were described at the time by Ofsted as “exceptionally low with most students making inadequate progress”. The original building it was housed in, despite its interesting history - including former students Peter Hook and Bernard Sumner of Joy Division and New Order - was practically falling apart. It would eventually be replaced in 2009-2010 with a new, purpose-built school which coincided with a slight upturn in the school’s fortunes.

The school historically has served an area with high rates of child poverty and deprivation and continues to do so to this day. I myself was accepted onto a course at the Manchester School of Architecture through the Manchester Access Plan - a scholarship aimed at college students from low-income backgrounds. Growing up in Salford in a single parent, low-income household, my childhood was like that of many others growing up in economically deprived wards of the UK’s inner cities. The year I finished school (2011) the surrounding area of Clarendon had the highest child poverty rate in Salford and one of the highest in Europe at 75% (1). The statistics today are just as bleak, with 302,158 children in Salford (2) and 1 in 4 children nationally living in poverty (3). Whilst growing up in a low-income household has been a common experience for many in the UK - and continues to be to this day - it is an experience that is not commonly found in the field of architecture.

The findings of several recent studies have shown architecture to be an “elitist profession” with top positions disproportionately occupied by those who attended private school. Despite roughly 90% of people in the UK receiving their education from state schools, analysis by the Architecture Foundation of the 93 architecture practices featured in its 2016 book New Architects 3, found that just 45% of their founders had been to state schools (4). Of that 45% it is highly likely that only a small number will have attended some of the more disadvantaged state schools, as additional data from the Creative Industries Policy and Evidence Centre has found that architecture is among the most privileged industries in the UK, with 73% of workers in the architectural industry coming from privileged backgrounds (5).

There are multiple barriers currently facing those from a low-income background that restricts access to the profession. A recent debate organised by Open City and UVW-SAW looking at the role of class within the profession refers to an “open secret” within architecture, that the industry is dominated by those who have been privately educated, inherit family wealth and connections and who “enjoy disproportionate success in a sector still riddled with barriers and prejudices that penalise working class people” (6). Both the cost and the duration of the required university courses generally limit the intake to those who can rely on financial support from their families, to support them during the length of their study. Those who can’t rely on assistance from families will often find themselves in financial difficulty. Recently introduced apprenticeships go some way to mitigating the cost of entry into the field, though the duration of the courses remains unappealingly long. Upon graduation, starting salaries in the industry tend to be much lower when compared to those of other professions that require similar amounts of study. The 2022 median salary for UK architects with under 5 years’ experience was £35,000. This is typically after 3 years of undergraduate study, 2 years postgraduate study, 2+ years’ work experience and passing the final Part 3 professional qualification. In comparison, a student entering one popular supermarket’s graduate area manager programme will start on a salary of £50,000, with the only requirement a 2:1 degree amounting to 3 years of study. Whilst those coming into the field from a privileged background may be able to supplement their salaries with inherited wealth or other streams of income, this is not an option for those from low-income backgrounds entering the profession. It is easy to see why the architecture profession isn’t immediately an attractive proposition to many students from low-income backgrounds, appealing only to those who have a pre-existing passion for architecture and design.

The impact of this disparity between the backgrounds of those who practice architecture and the backgrounds of those who live with it becomes apparent when looking at the many crises facing the country today. Issues such as the lack of quality affordable housing, fuel poverty, the climate crisis, and gentrification all disproportionately affect those from low-income backgrounds. The incoming RIBA President Muyiwa Oki, who campaigned on a platform of worker’s rights and prioritising the climate crisis, has acknowledged this challenge saying “we need a diversity of people to solve the big issues of the day” (7). It is important that people from working-class backgrounds are afforded the opportunity to be directly involved in developing the solutions for these issues and are offered routes into the built environment so that they can have a hand in shaping their local communities from a position of direct lived experience and understanding of the issues at hand. This opening up of the sector to be more diverse and inclusive towards working class voices would put the profession in a far better position to effectively connect with the communities it serves, and better convey to the general public the value that architecture as a profession contributes to society. For this to happen, the industry needs to become a more appealing prospective career choice for those who come from a low-income background and want direct involvement in shaping our communities and built environment.

[Header image credit: Flickr user Salford_66]