The Norman Transcript

September 17, 2009

Panel looks at women, minorities in architecture

By Julianna Parker Jones

Discussions about architecture influences have often left out key players -- women and minorities -- and that needs to change, a panel of architecture scholars said Wednesday in Norman.

"It's a question of access; women did not have access to education and so they were always second best," said Vibhavari Jani, an associate professor of interior design at Louisiana Tech University. "...But that is changing. Look at how many women are here."

Jani was brought to the University of Oklahoma College of Architecture Wednesday through a Presidential Dream Course called "Women, Minorities and Design."

Abimbola Asojo, associate professor of interior design, and Glenn Josey, architecture instructor, co-teach the class, which benefits from special funding to bring in experts from around the world.

"Without the support of the president and the provost's office we would not be able to bring in panelists of such high caliber," Asojo said.

The class is designed to give students a new, global perspective of their work, she said.

"Because, you know, it's really a global community," she said. "I think globalization is really the issue behind the panel."

Also on the panel Wednesday were Nnambi Elleh, associate professor of architecture at the University of Cincinnati, and Aly Karam, associate professor in the planning program at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa.

Elleh spoke about the history of architecture in Africa and the interchange of culture between Africa and the West in the area of design.

"If architecture is supposed to tell the story, it should tell the story of human experience," he said. That includes the architect as a hero creating colossal structures, but also the architect as the normal person designing their space and dealing with adversity, Elleh said.

Karam gave the audience something to think about as he asked, how thick is our lens through which we view women and non-white ethnicities? He showed the blueprints and photos of finished buildings by South African architects, asking the audience to pick out which ones were done by men, women, whites or blacks.

"My point in putting all these in front of us is, 'Is it important?'" Karam said. They are all South African architects, no matter what else divides them.

Jani spoke about architecture in India, where she is from. She gave an example of a well-preserved archeological site in India called Lothal, that includes well-made plumbing and irrigation systems and town planning.

In this community, the women were the architects.

"This is indigenous women building houses with the help of men, not the other way around," Jani said.

Although the men had the larger space in the houses, on the outside, the women were the ones who governed the home, Jani said.

Women are becoming more prominent in architecture in modern times as well, she said.

Karam argued that it did not matter what ethnicity or gender one was as long as the building designed was what it was supposed to be. However, that brought up a debate among the panelists about whether that was really true yet.

"We are moving towards that future," Elleh said, but that wasn't really the case yet.

It really comes back to a question of access though, he said. Each of the South African architects shown was from a privileged background, regardless of their gender or ethnicity. So the question, Elleh said, is still about who has the opportunity to become an architect and designer, even if some of the divisive issues have changed.

In addition to the public panel Wednesday, the students in the class met with the panelists and presented project ideas. The class has been studying non-Western architecture and interior design.

John Postic, fourth year architecture student, said he has learned a lot in the class already.

"I thought it's been really interesting, especially today," he said. "Being a white male in Women and Minorities in Design I'm learning a lot I really never paid attention to before."

There will be two more free, public lectures during the semester.

The panel "Race, Gender, Ethnicity and Design" will be 11:30 a.m. Oct. 21 at Arc on Main, 555 W. Main St. room 116.

Panelists will be Michaele Pride, associate professor and the former director of the School of Architecture and Interior Design at the University of Cincinnati; Bradford Grant, dean of Howard University School of Architecture and Design; and Jack Travis, founder and principal of Studio JTA.

The third panel, "Celebrating Diversity in Design: Voices from Practice," will be 11:30 a.m. Nov. 11 at Arc on Main, room 116.

Panelists are Garrison McNeil, professor emeritus at the Bernard and Anne Spitzer School of Architecture at the City College of New York; Bahaar Faquih, a principal at Faquih and Associates, a leading architecture and interior, planning and design firm located in the rapidly growing and modernizing metropolis of Mumbai, India; and Cheryl Mcafee-Mitchell, the daughter of the renowned African-American architect Charles Mcafee, FAIA, the designer of the famous Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta (Martin Luther King's Church), and president of CFM Architects.

Julianna Parker Jones 366-3541 jparker@normantranscript.com