Michelle Obama urges architecture industry to embrace diversity

So many kids don't even know what an architect is. They don't think about how buildings are built; they don't know anything about developing or planning
– Michelle Obama

The architecture industry must address its diversity, gender, and equity issues by embracing fresh voices from all walks of life, former US first lady Michelle Obama has said.

Speaking in conversation with the president of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) Thomas Vonier at the organisation’s annual conference, Obama urged those working in the profession to communicate what their work is about

"So many kids don't even know what an architect is," she said. "They don't think about how buildings are built; they don't know anything about developing or planning. I know I didn't, and I was an educated kid. You have kids growing up in communities where people don't even work, period, let alone as doctors or lawyers or architects.

"You need to go to schools, neighbourhoods, communities, any place where underrepresented minorities exist, and start talking. Start small. Make a friend."

Obama – who was making her first public appearance since leaving the White House in January – also spoke about gender inequality in the work environment; conceding that almost all professions are affected by the issue.

She said: “The struggle is still real. You can't start recruiting from a pool that doesn't exist. You have to build that pool, and you have to start at a young age.

"Education, to my mind, is key to giving women the voice, the structure, the strategy, the tools to improve their conditions. Because if you change the life of a woman, you change the life of a community, a family, a nation."

"If you have leverage, you have to push for the women who don't. We have to start asking for what we need, and then we need employers to be more open to what work-life balance can actually look like."

Obama also urged US architects to focus on improving low-income city districts by building for the citizens that live there and involving them in the design process.

She said: "Yes there are the projects that happen downtown – that important building, that important park – but there's also those community centres, those parks and district facilities, the homes, the opportunities that you have to make a neighbourhood beautiful for a family or a child that feels like no one cares.”

Speaking about her own experience of working with architects on the forthcoming Obama Presidential Center in Chicago, Obama praised Tod Williams and Billie Tsien.

"I don't get to work with them often but our architects are so much fun," she said. "The creative process – space, time – they think about things that we wouldn't ever think of.

“We're also closely considering the exterior, how it will relate to the community. The architects we're working with are phenomenal; they're listening, they're doing their homework, they're researching and starting to understand the South Side of Chicago."

She also revealed her husband, former president Barack Obama, once wanted to be an architect.

"Barack is an artist, though he tries to downplay it," she said. “He's the kind of guy who says, 'I don't care what the living room looks like,' and then has a thousand questions and opinions about everything. He's someone with ideas, he's someone who thinks big. That's what architects do too, right?"

Michelle Obama  architecture  diversity  AIA  design 
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The architecture industry must address its diversity, gender, and equity issues by embracing fresh voices from all walks of life, former US first lady Michelle Obama has said. Speaking in conversation with the president of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) Thomas Vonier at the organisation’s annual conference, Obama urged those working in the profession to communicate what their work is about "So many kids don't even know what an
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Obama was making her first public appearance since leaving the White House in January / Wiki Commons
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Robert D Henry Architects (RDH-Architects) was founded in 1990 in New York City by Bob Henry, known as the “sensuous architect of serenity.”
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