Interview

Gabrielle Bullock

Perkins+Will’s Director of Global Diversity talks to Magali Robathan about making diversity a priority, having difficult conversations and working on a unique outdoor street museum on LA’s Crenshaw Boulevard


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In 2013, Perkins+Will director Gabrielle Bullock approached the firm’s CEO with a proposal: to set up and spearhead a Global Diversity Initiative for the firm.

As a female African American architect (a demographic that represents just 0.2 per cent of licensed architects in the US) Bullock was well aware of the lack of diversity in the profession and understood the importance of architects representing the communities they serve. Perkins+Will saw a business case for a more diverse and inclusive practice and the Global Diversity Initiative was launched with a tour of every one of Perkins+Will’s offices and some honest and sometimes difficult conversations with its staff.

As a result of this research, Bullock put together a strategic plan and is working on a range of initiatives designed to encourage and support a more diverse workplace.

“Diversity within our firm is crucial for continued growth and success,” Bullock said. “In order to remain competitive and relevant within an evolving marketplace, it’s important that the diversity of design professionals mirrors the societies they serve.”

Here she talks about the initiative and how it’s led to new work for the firm and gives some advice to other practices.

Why is the issue of diversity in architecture so important?
The diversity of our profession is important because architects should reflect the world that they design for. We work with communities all over the world of a very diverse nature. In order to design for these communities, we should represent them.

Why are architects of colour so underrepresented in the industry in the West?
It’s an issue of cost, awareness and access.

It’s an expensive education. Historically architecture has been a predominantly elite, white profession, and was not typically suggested as a career to students from black, Hispanic and minority ethnic backgrounds.

There’s an issue about access to schools and to knowledge about the profession.

Growing up, I didn’t know any architects, and I wasn’t taught about black architects.

Things are changing, however. There’s a considerable push by the American Institute of Architects and by firms like Perkins and Will to do outreach to underrepresented students.

Why are women underrepresented?
It’s pretty much the same thing. Architecture was historically a white male profession, and so it took a while for women to become aware, interested and exposed to it as a viable career choice.

The gender balance is increasing in architecture schools now. The challenge is keeping women in the profession. How do we make our profession and work environment conducive and flexible to accommodate life events? It’s about being proactive and intentional when it comes to understanding the needs and cultural and gender and racial issues of everyone in order to stay and thrive in the profession.

What’s been your personal experience of working as a black female architect in the US?
I’m one of 424 black female licensed architects in the US. We represent 0.2 per cent of the profession.

I haven’t experienced considerable negative response as a female; however, I’m painfully aware that I’m often the only black person in the room.

I try not to make it an issue unless somebody makes it an issue for me. I don’t wear my gender or my race on my sleeve. I’m an architect and I’ve been very mindful and deliberate about making that clear throughout my career.

Have you experienced any issues as a result of your gender or race?
Oh yes. Early in my career I was put on projects because the client was black. I asked the question: Am I being put on this project because I’m qualified and I’m the best person, or because I’m black?’ They stumbled with the answer, which was an answer in itself.

Occasionally I’ve been mistaken for the administrative assistant or been asked: Who’s the architect?, and I’ve had to explain that it’s me, and that I’m in charge of the project.

As women and minorities we have to be strong and deliberate and clear about our position and values in order to counteract any potential bias.

On the positive side, Perkins+Will has recently been awarded a very interesting project in Los Angeles. It’s an open air outdoor museum predominantly for the African American community [see boxout, right]. The fact that our team was so diverse, and represented the client and the community, was one of the deciding factors in us winning this project. So there’s definitely a benefit to having a more diverse team.

You’re director of global diversity at Perkins+Will. What does the role involve and how did it come about?
In 2013 I had just completed an eight year role as managing director of Perkins+Will’s Los Angeles office. In addition to my local responsibilities. I’d always had a senior, firm-wide position, so I was given the opportunity to think about what that next role would be.

As one of very few black architects, it was an opportunity for me to bolster my ambitions to address the crucial issue of this gap. I proposed a diversity inclusion and engagement initiative that would be led by me. I outlined the business, human and commercial imperative, and explained why it’s such an important issue. The firm recognised the importance of becoming a more diverse and inclusive organisation.

I started with a listening tour of Perkins+Will’s North American offices, I visited every office, having honest and sometimes uncomfortable conversations in an attempt to identify and address lots of questions about the meaning and purpose of diversity, and about its greater value – not just to us as a firm, but also to the industry and to our clients.

What happened next?
It was clear that we needed to start with a training programme. We needed to ensure that everyone understood why it was important to have an inclusive and diverse organisation, to understand the challenges and how we can address them. My role is to develop strategy around this issue and to lead the Diversity Council, a 10 body group that makes up the leaders of the Global Diversity Initiative.

In addition, each office has a Diversity Champion to facilitate local initiatives around the overarching goal, so diversity is something that everybody in the firm owns. Inclusivity needs to be an all embracing, core value of the firm.

I report to the CEO and the Executive Committee. I develop and track the metrics around the core focus areas of the initiative. The core focus areas are: recruitment and retention; outreach to middle schools, elementary schools, high schools and colleges; work/life integration; overall culture; and leadership and commitment.

Our annual report measures progress by office and then rolls out by firm. We also use quantitative metrics to measure how we’re doing. It’s not a quota, but you can’t track progress if you don’t measure your demographics.

Los Angeles is one of the most diverse cities in the country. Texas is one of the most diverse states in the country. It’s important to ask ourselves what our demographics in those offices look like to the communities that we’re serving.

Have you seen changes as a result of this initiative?
Yes. The first time we issued a report was for 2015. I use icons that range from red to green to show how we are performing with regards to diversity and inclusion. That first year there was a lot of red, meaning that the offices weren’t paying attention to the areas that they should have been. Fast forward to last year’s report and there was a lot less red and a lot more green.

Demographically, I’ve seen the gender numbers increase: in 2017, Perkins+Will’s male-to-female ratio was at almost 50:50, with women accounting for 48 per cent of our workforce. We’ve seen the minority demographic also increase but at a lesser percentage; it’s clear that increasing the minority representation is the biggest challenge for us.

That’s because there’s a dearth of minorities in architecture schools, so the pipeline of candidates is very slim. One of our strategies is to help increase the pipeline by doing outreach to specific universities. We partner with seven architecture schools in historically black colleges and universities to help mentor and guide their students.

How do you encourage students from minority ethnic backgrounds to apply for those courses in the first place?
We do outreach work in elementary schools and middle schools. I do a lot of speaking and a lot of outreach to schools locally, to give them awareness and access. It’s a strong focus for us.

What would you like other practices to be doing with relation to diversity?
I’d like them to start by having the conversation around diversity and inclusion. It can be uncomfortable, yes, but have that conversation and commit to diversity as a core value. Any size firm can do this; it’s scalable.

Go to elementary schools, change the way you recruit, send people to schools that look like the students you are trying to reach.

It’s really important to try to look at everything you do through the diversity lens. Consider what projects you’re doing and also ask what cultural competence the team needs to be successful.

If you’re going after a museum project, you need to put people with museum experience on your team. If you’re doing work in a predominantly African American community, you need the cultural competence and you need to be able to reflect that in your team and your approach.

What trends have you seen in architecture and design?
I’ve seen a big change in what architecture focuses on over the past few years. It used to be about the iconic building, the star architect. Now projects are less about the building itself and more about the community – it could be the community of a workplace of an organisation. It could be an entire community, like the Destination Crenshaw project.

The focus is not just on the building, it’s on who’s going to use it, how are the users going to experience it, how does it represent the community and how will the design impact the community? I’m excited by that.

DESTINATION CRENSHAW

Gabrielle Bullock is currently leading the Destination Crenshaw project, a community-driven, 1.1 mile-long permanent outdoor museum set to be built on Crenshaw Boulevard in Los Angeles, US. The museum will celebrate the history and culture of black LA with a series of cultual facilities, music events and art installations, the details of which are being decided with the local community.

The project was born as a result of the construction of the LAX/Crenshaw light rail line, which will cut right through Crenshaw Boulevard. “The community decided in advance to preserve this area, as LA’s predominant African American community with a very strong, artistic culture,” says Bullock.

“If nothing were done the train line could just obliterate the sense of place that’s there.”

The project will use Crenshaw Boulevard as the backdrop for public art and streetscape design which will celebrate and explore the cultural, political and historical importance of black LA.

“This hasn’t been done before; we haven’t found any precedent for it,” says Bullock. “It’s not a typical museum; there won’t be galleries or buildings. There will be a gateway at one end – some sort of iconic structure – and another at the other end. Along that 1.1 mile stretch of road, there will be a series of activities and art and cultural installations to activate the street, turn it into a destination and reinforce the strength of that community. The community is involved every step of the way.”

The project is currently in the early stages, with a series of workshops and consultations taking place with local residents.

“We’re asking the community for their stories” says Bullock. “We’re asking: ‘What’s your experience and how can we reflect that in an iconic way?’
“It’s a very exciting project and one that will really tell a story about the community.”

Destination Crenshaw is due to open in October 2019, coinciding with the opening of the Crenshaw/LAX Line.

The area features iconic artworks, including the To Protect and Serve mural by Noni Olabisi
The area features iconic artworks, including the To Protect and Serve mural by Noni Olabisi

PERKINS+WILL

Perkins+Will is one of the world’s largest architecture practices. Established in Chicago in 1935, the firm employs more than 2,200 staff across 20 offices worldwide.

Perkins+Will’s leisure work includes the Shanghai Natural History Museum in Shanghai, China; the National Museum of African American History & Culture in Washington DC, US; Albion District Library in Ontario, Canada; and the Jumeirah Emirates Hotel in Dubai, UAE.

Perkins+Will’s family of partner companies includes design consultancy Portland; sustainable transportation planning consultancy Nelson\Nygaard; healthcare technology planning firm Genesis Planning; and luxury hospitality design firm Pierre-Yves Rochon. In January 2018, Danish design firm Schmidt Hammer Lassen Architects joined Perkins+Will, and in March 2018, Texas interior architecture firm The Lauck Group, Inc, joined the practice.

The Perkins+Will-designed National Center for Civil Rights opened 
in Atlanta in 2014 / Photo ©Mark Herboth
The Perkins+Will-designed National Center for Civil Rights opened in Atlanta in 2014 Photo ©Mark Herboth
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