By Tina Lam
In a field that plans and builds for everyone, it is natural to ask the question of who has the power of definition, which voices are included and excluded, and how inclusion and diversity in general fit in.
Architects are a homogeneous group. I could have been even more explicit and said that the Norwegian architecture scene is quite white, and I am not talking about our white-painted living rooms. We have to talk about diversity and representation in the Norwegian architecture field. We have to talk about the exclusion of groups who are also Norwegians but who you never see or hear about in the architecture discourse, whether it is writers or stories from Aftenposten or Arkitektur N or at professional events. It has been difficult to write this text. Only a few of us have talked about this issue, and only in empty offices and small rooms with people we know. The issue is unpopular and uncomfortable to bring up, but necessary and long overdue.
I have often thought that it would be easier just to drop it. On previous occasions, people have told me “don’t rock the boat” or, perhaps worst of all, that I wouldn’t be hired if I was a “troublemaker” or “hysterical minority lady”. After reading Reni Eddo-Lodge’s book about racism, I put all my projects on the topic on hold. In this book, titled Why I'm No Longer Talking to White People About Race, Eddo-Lodge writes about how racism is felt both physically and mentally. I could never quite formulate why it was so exhausting to talk about racism, until Eddo-Lodge described such talks as emotional acrobatics. The reactions from those who “had to” listen could be anything from being visibly bored to being defensive. Some people even get so upset by it that you end up having to comfort them. Both your own self-censoring and the reactions of others are mentally exhausting. A pause was necessary, as talking about racism had become too emotionally draining and not very constructive. What was the point if no one learned anything? But then another black body was killed by a policeman, once again in the United States: the weariness, the sorrow and not least the anger crossed the Atlantic over to us.
As an informal exercise in discourse analysis, I processed articles about architecture and public spaces from the newspaper Aftenposten and the architectural journals Arkitektnytt and Arkitektur N on 24 May 2020 to check on the status of representation and diversity in the Norwegian architecture scene. Based on each author’s name and photo, the articles and stories were categorized according to whether the writers were white men, white women, POC men or POC women. The positive news is that it seems like there is an equality in representation of women and men in the architecture magazines. As a woman these are encouraging findings. However, only two articles were authored by minority women, of which one was co-authored by a white male. This informal but handy exercise demonstrates that we do need to discuss diversity within our field.
In addition to calling out the people with power in the field, I have to address “my own people”. We do not talk out loud about diversity, we do not write op-eds or comments about diversity, instead we whisper about diversity. When the ethically Norwegian architect Joakim Skajaa is the one who tops the online searches for the phrase mangfold i arkitektur (“diversity in architecture”), alarm bells should ring. The problem is of course not Joakim Skajaa, who deserves all manner of praise for highlighting this issue. The problem is that it is very rare that I have seen people from minority backgrounds who wanted to talk about diversity. To a certain degree I do understand why. For us, a lot is on the table: the fear of not being hired, of being ostracized or losing opportunities. We did not inherit the social and cultural capital that we have accumulated – for most of us, this is something we have worked hard and long for. The fear of not wanting to speak out is legitimate, but we are not doing ourselves any favours by being silent.
This problem has two sides. First of all, the field itself has not done enough to make space for representation and diversity. Secondly, there has been a lack of aligning among the minority groups. This is something we as minorities have to deal with, but fundamentally, this requires measures that ensure that individuals feel safe to express themselves. This is currently not the case.
In addition to finding an appropriate method and language, representation is another necessary measure. Representation as a tool can help make it easier for minorities to express themselves and broaden the recruitment of future talents, thus enriching the field. It is important to see people like yourself out there, whether it is news anchors, models on magazine covers, politicians or those who build and plan for us. Could one possible explanation of the lack of diversity within architecture education be that young minority people have not seen themselves as architects and planners?
Take, for example, articles about homes: it would be refreshing to see other representations than the typical white, middle-class, heteronormative couple with the Eames chairs and the Artichoke lamp centrally placed in the architect-designed apartment with clear nods to functionalism. To be clear, I love these “cribs”-like articles, and I am and will remain a loyal reader. I just want more varied portrayals.
As a kid I could remember the following observation: my home did not resemble the homes of my friends from other backgrounds. It also did not resemble what you saw on television. The design and art references were different: for example, we did not have the pine furniture, the aforementioned Artichoke lamp, or rosemaling bowls and plates. The art on our walls was not of Norwegian landscapes but rather of Vietnamese landscapes along with a few Van Gogh reproductions. More fascinating was the homes of our Middle Eastern friends, who had furniture you never saw in IKEA catalogues, but rather gold, ornaments and huge sofas with plenty of sitting space.
The rooms in my childhood home were also used differently than the white homes with the Artichoke lamps. For example, we had a designated space for religious activity, which later received its own room when the apartment eventually got swapped in for a suburban house. This room consisted of an altar with a selection of photos of dead relatives and Buddha personalities. And perhaps there was a statue or two, and of course the serving plate that somehow always contained fruit. Rice also had its own designated area. It was often kept in barrels hidden away in lockers, sheds or beneath the kitchen counter. Those who were really extravagant had rice dispensers.
I also miss stories about how minority women use public space. Such women are rarely written or talked about. We know a lot about how white middle-class women use public space. They enjoy using the mountains for skiing and hiking and they enjoy doing things in the woods, like Instagramable camping trips. But my mom does not use public space like this, and I can imagine that is the case with similar moms. My mom does not seek out parks or forests on her own. When she is in a public space, she moves in an A-to-B pattern with clearly set goals.
It is more of these stories and voices that I am looking for within the architecture field. It is not because I wish to see more people who look like me in these feature articles on homes or because diversity is politically correct, but rather because it is an important societal perspective that is lacking in our field. The presentation of architecture, cityscapes and public space is almost exclusively stripped of voices from a variety of cultures and social groups who too are Norwegians.
I started writing this text long before Black Lives Matter reached Norway, before the blacked-out squares on Instagram and before the demonstrations. That an American movement was required before we finally talk about this topic here at home is revealing, but also not surprising for those of us who have attempted to bring it up for years. Much can be said about this, such as the fact that many of us did not feel that our stories were worthy enough to be taken seriously, that they were not important enough, that they were not dramatic enough. But for some people it has been dramatic. Some have experienced getting their hijabs torn off, others have had racial slurs hurled at them. Some have been threatened to silence, while others have died. None of these incidents has provoked what we have seen in the first weeks of June, even though they happened here in Norway.
The time is due for a discussion about diversity and architecture. But luckily this time with another point of entry, one that is more palatable and constructive. This time no one will be accused of being racist or of having privileges that they need to be aware of. Instead of focusing on unconscious biases and the traumas of the past, the goal here is to encourage reflections on diversity and representation. The aim of this text is to highlight the issue in a meaningful way that hopefully can result in substantial changes. But perhaps most importantly, to find a method and a language to talk about it in. This has been lacking in the Norwegian architecture scene.
Those of us who build and plan for everyone have to be able to demonstrate that we have the socio-cultural competence that is needed to create things for every group. This can only be strengthened by being more inclusive.
Tina Lam (1989) has studied international relations at the University of Sydney and has an MA in Urban and Regional Planning from Norwegian University of Life Sciences (NMBU). She has worked as a gallery assistant at ROM for Art and Architecture since 2015, and is an online editor at the journal +KOTE. Lam's parents came to Norway as refugees from Vietnam, and Lam is born and raised in Norway.