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Diversity of architects: The effort to add more color to the business of design

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Despite Southern California's diverse buildings, only a small fraction of local licensed architects are people of color. Industry professionals want to change that.

After 13 years of hard work, Jason Morris is finally a licensed architect. 

"It's a long journey but nothing worth doing is easy," Morris said. 

He works at the building design firm, Gruen Associates. Morris is a member of a pretty exclusive group: He’s not just an architect… He’s a BLACK architect. He was the only one in his graduating class.

"Everyone's nice and everything," Morris said, recalling his experience. "But it definitely stands out in your mind. You kinda just look around and say 'Oh, I'm the only one? Okay... It's interesting."

According to the National Organization of Minority Architects,  of the more than one hundred thousand licensed architects in the country, only two percent of them are black. And all other racial minorities aren't faring any better.

The lack of diversity in the profession is especially odd in a place like Southern California, which features some of the most varied building design of anywhere else in the country.

There are modern minimalist studio apartments, Spanish-style homes, and 40’s-style concert halls all sometimes within the same neighborhood. 

"Southern California really is the nexus of all great design," said Mike Enomoto is a managing partner at Gruen.  "It's all really happening here in Los Angeles."

According to Enomoto, the rich mix of architecture in LA was not the result of having a rich mix of architects.

"For many many years I think the profession was dominated by a white America. Upper class white America for that matter," He said.

Enomoto believes a key to inspiring the next generation of minority architects is to let them know about the previous generation’s contributions to the local landscape. 

Last year, his colleague, Gruen partner Deborah Gerod, had an idea that could help with that. They were at the National conference of the American Institute of Architects in Philadelphia.

"There was this map in Philadelphia that had all these important buildings in Philadelphia and the architects names. I thought, 'Man what a great idea! We could do that and pick out all the buildings [in Los Angeles] that were designed by African American architects.>

Morris jumped at the chance to help put that map together. It features over 50 local buildings including the Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood.

"Norma Sklarek, a black woman architect, was an integral part of the project," Morris said. "She was in charge behind the scenes for all of the production work."

The massive structure is a major local landmark. The geometry and colors make it look like a toy set. 

"You kinda feel like a little Lego amongst these giant Legos!" Morris said.

There are three giant legos - Red, Green and Blue. 

Norma Sklarek worked on the blue part, which has been nicknamed "The Blue Whale." Morris explained where the origins of the name.

Norma Sklarek was the first African-American woman to be licensed as an architect. She worked on other major projects throughout her career, including Terminal One at LAX and the US Embassy in Tokyo, Japan.

But like many of her contemporaries, her work wasn't widely publicized.

That's because unless you’re the chief architect of a building, your contributions to the craft are hidden. Jason Morris thinks that should change - he's all for giving credit to the full team of designers who contribute to buildings

"That could be another step to increasing awareness," he said.

The AIA largely agrees. This year, they've scheduled conferences, speaking engagements and meetings all designed to find out what can be done to get people of color interested in the profession. Morris looks forward to doing his part.

"I want to be visible," Morris said. "I think it’s important to do the career fairs and be involved in mentorship programs where I and others can interact with people of color, provide examples of what they can be."

But here's a question: How important is diversity to a profession like architecture? 

After all, isn’t a good building just a good building? 

Debora Gerod certainly thinks so. 

"As you walk down the street, do you have any clue who designed each building? Are they female are they male? What's their ethnicity?" she said. "I'm going to guess that that's often not that easy to pick out. But I don’t think that’s the point."

Neither does Enomoto.

He says this is about allowing people to shape the places where they live 

"I'm not looking for homogenous type designs across any particular community. However, at some point, you have to take a step back and look at whether or not the issue of diversity is being addressed by the profession."

As one of the newest Architects on the block, Jason Morris is doing what he can to help turn things around.

Morris said, "As a black person myself, I’ve been working to improve the numbers of black people in the profession. So it’s cool to see one! It’s kind of awesome."

Today the AIA is holding something called Encompass: The Conference to Actualize Diversity and Inclusion. It's going on all day at the California African American Museum of History.

To hear the full story, click the blue player above.

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