Equity, diversity, and inclusion have been adopted into workplace culture and studio programming. But, justice — as a principle and directive — has catalyzed the effort for fundamental awareness and evident change within architecture. Why is justice a necessary design ethic? Virginia’s preeminent voices in equity, diversity, and inclusion weigh-in on why this question matters. As part of this series, Noland Medalist John Spencer, FAIA, says that justice is only achievable if individuals can accept fairness and practice it. “Subjects we talked about 50 years ago were not considered part of architecture, and subjects we’re talking about now are sometimes not considered to be part of architecture,” he says. “While talking has gotten easier, we still have to address the problem.”

John Spencer, FAIA
Noland Medalist John Spencer, FAIA, joined his alma mater, Hampton University, as faculty and chair of the architecture department in 1970 where he encouraged students to look beyond the campus gates and involve themselves in the larger community.

When you returned to your alma mater, Hampton University to chair the Department of Architecture in 1970, what did the work ahead of you look like?

One of the things you have to remember is that I came back to Hampton in 1970 and two years before that Whitney Young spoke to AIA in Boston. That was still reverberating throughout the profession, to assume responsibility over contemporary social issues. The response was good verbally, but slow in action, from my perspective at that time. There was something that needed to be done from the top down or the bottom up, depending on how you look at it. I was asked to come back to Hampton and they had recently been visited by NAAB in 1968, and they gave Hampton a two-year accreditation where you were on probation. If you’d met the criteria for change, they’d consider accrediting you for three more years.

When I got to Hampton, I remember thinking about Whitney Young’s talk about the responsibilities of the profession — not just to Black architects, but to others, as well — and my first thought was to help Hampton achieve full accreditation and become a first-rate school. So, I developed a five-year program, pulled the curriculum apart, put it back together, projected out five years, and developed a way for each course to relate horizontally and vertically. I also looked at the courses across campus and Hampton had a program at the time that was about reading and writing across the curriculum, so I thought that architecture needed to be part of this program. Architecture students had to write, read, present, and do the things that others did and demonstrate a certain level of achievement. This allowed me to also evaluate the faculty to see if they were teaching what they were supposed to be teaching.

When NAAB came back, they looked at the five-year projection and my budget and they liked it. Instead of giving us the three-year extension, they gave us a full five-year accreditation. That took the pressure off.

What was the big project you needed to undertake at that time, in your mind?

Whitney Young talked about the need for increased numbers of underprivileged students in architecture, and HBCUs needed to be part of that. That meant recruiting, touching base with high schools, talking to architecture firms — because in this area there was only one African-American architectural firm in the Tidewater area at the time. Whenever I travelled, I talked about Hampton. I talked about HBCUs. When I was president of NAAB, I visited each and every HBCU with an architecture program, and talked about how they could achieve accreditation.

After that, while you’re putting together the program and writing courses, we had to achieve this within the context of the institution. Hampton’s motto is “education for life” through the head, the heart, and the hand. So, that meant educating competent graduates, with an emphasis on “educated,” because architecture is more than sitting down at a table and designing things and which pieces of material you’ll choose. It is about having a meaningful career and preparing graduates for a life of service. That would have been the third thing I was thinking about at the time.

Many students came in and didn’t know what architecture was about and made a decision based on a mechanical drawing class they might have taken in high school. They didn’t know that architecture was more than designing buildings. So, that was a big part of the mission. They needed to have confidence and self-awareness. You cannot grow up in the United States of America for18 years and not feel the pressures of prejudice and racism. Many of our students grew up in Black schools and never had a white schoolmate, but they still arrived with a certain experience of racism. So, confidence and self-awareness were important to instill in our students so they could combat direct or indirect prejudice.

Did you find that students matriculating at Hampton toward the end of your time there have a greater self-awareness?

Yes, and I find that students eventually arrived with a better understanding of their surroundings. Technology has made a big difference in the way people live, communicate, rub elbows with each other, and, as we talk to students, we find them having what I call the two-dimensional view of the world. They had the length and the width and hadn’t thought about the depth, necessarily. But, that’s changing now because of their awareness. They’re arriving with a better sense of depth, and they are settling in earlier with the idea that if they want to have a meaningful life and help others, they must think about certain things right away.

What are architecture students actually learning that prepares them for work?

The way I see architecture is that we’re lucky. It’s one of the few programs on campus that has the broad base that we’re talking about. Education tends to be specialized now, but architecture can’t be specialized. Sure, we have mechanical and electrical and structural considerations, but architects are problem solvers on other levels, too: How a building gets used, the materials and how they fit together, the costs, how the building impacts the people who use it. I always told people in my studios: If I have 30 people, I want 30 different solutions. Life experiences demand it, even if the fundamentals are the same. We are problem solvers and that’s about human input. Technology can make it easier, but problem solving is human and design is human.

We hear a lot about “leadership” and “equity” in the profession, and the responsibilities that those words represent. What do you think really prepares an architect to assume those responsibilities?

Right now, we’re getting more social consciousness in students at a younger age, and at a younger age students are having a desire to create solutions to social problems. What we have to do is say that it’s more than the design of a building that’s going to solve problems. Subjects we talked about 50 years ago were not considered part of architecture, and subjects we’re talking about now are sometimes not considered to be part of architecture. While talking has gotten easier, we still have to address the problem, though. For example, we’ll still do a building frame and hang something on it, but we haven’t thought about what the building is supposed to do. We talk about space and environment, and good buildings are addressing these things.

You asked about leadership. You’re out front, showing the way, directing activities. This is a person you look up to and look forward to seeing. But, what occurs to me is how do we define it? The person that’s the leader isn’t always right and isn’t necessarily the person that should be leading people. There are good leaders and bad leaders, so we must wonder about the people who speak the loudest, who carry the biggest gun, and who have the biggest ideas.

You asked about equity and fairness, which leaders must consider. Leaders must apply justice. But, if we have a society that’s decided on a definition of justice and we supplement it with tolerance, then we have to apply it across the board to all people. We have to talk about it in terms of everyone.

The architect, in terms of their education, should be leaders. We teach our students to think outside of the box, to borrow a phrase, but it takes fairness, principles, and truthfulness to lead, too.

What does having a design ethic mean to you?

For a person to think of equality and fairness, they can be exposed to them in school, but they must also accept equality and fairness. When we look at people who we call leaders and who have led us in the wrong direction, we find that, in the end, they lacked a sense of ethics all along. They might have been able to lead people, but they lacked the most important thing.

What are some concepts that you think the next generation of architects will have to redefine or, in some cases, define for the first time?

If we look at the Constitution, it’s life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. If we look at the Bible, it’s love thy neighbor, feed the hungry, and so on — these are basic tenets. I believe those tenets, though, should be present in students by the time they arrive at school and arrive at architecture. They are the things that will define the relationships you have with the people around you, including your clients and employees.

Another concept is understanding that there’s designing a structure and designing a space for people. If you put a building up on a lot, you limit the impact it will have on people. If you put a building next to it, you start to deal with relationships and sunlight and views, and you have a richer problem to solve. That’s the problem of cities. That’s the three-dimensional aspect of life.

How does that relate to the ways we define the architect’s role?

Architects aren’t going to be experts in all of this, but we need to consider all things. We’ve done so many things that we praised at first and thought were great — look at urban renewal, look at Levittown — which were about exclusion and destruction. But, why was it great? It was great for certain people, but those things lacked the three-dimensional view of society. My parents were missionaries and they always said if you can’t do anything to help people, then don’t do something to hurt them.

About the author
William Richards is a writer and editorial consultant based in Washington, D.C. From 2007 to 2011, he was the Editor-in-Chief of Inform Magazine.