AAPI Architects on Race-Based Industry Obstacles and the Path Forward

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Jing Liu of SO-IL and Suchi Reddy of Reddymade
Image Credit: Akira Yamada/Chloe Horseman/Hunker

In our Architect of Impact series, you'll meet the people and organizations using design to drive positive social change, along with the movements behind them.

In 2020, anti-Asian hate crimes spiked by 149% in 16 of the largest U.S. cities, according to a report by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University San Bernardino. Between March 2020 and March 2021, more than 6,000 incidents were reported to Stop AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islander) Hate, a nonprofit organization. These horrific events have fueled the Stop AAPI Hate movement, a crusade to put an end to racially charged violence against AAPI individuals.

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In the midst of these atrocities, the awareness around anti-Asian racism has drastically increased in recent years. This has amplified the importance of AAPI Heritage Month, which is observed in May and recognizes the monumental influence of AAPI communities in the U.S.

To learn more about these contributions, we spoke to five Asian American architects about their unique experiences in the industry. Asian Americans, after all, are not widely represented in the architecture field. According to 2020 data from the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB), only 6% of architects in the country are Asian American. Hispanic or Latinx and Black individuals are even less represented — about 4% and 2%, respectively. And while the number of BIPOC individuals, including Asian Americans, entering the field ​is​ increasing, the change has been slow. According to 2021 data from the NCARB, racial and ethnic diversity in this regard has increased by just 7% since 2011.

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"Many companies have been working [to fully diversify] their teams for years, and those efforts are starting to pay off," Flora Chou — an architectural historian and cultural resources planner at Page & Turnbull, a full-service architecture, design, and preservation firm — tells Hunker. Chou, who is of Taiwanese descent, also notes that while she's glad architecture and design firms are paying more attention to diversity, it's a long-term process.

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Suchi Reddy — architect, designer, and founder of Reddymade, which focuses on architecture, design, and art — echoes similar sentiments. "In the 30 years since I graduated, I have seen progress. The number of women architects and people of color, [including] AAPI and others, have grown — but not nearly enough," says Reddy, who is of Indian descent. "We have become more open [in society] and the workplace, and diversity is now the mainstay of conversations, but we still have a long way to go."

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This ongoing shift is crucial, as the creation of inclusive and accessible built environments is only possible if diverse voices have a place at the table. As Steven Lee, an architect at Page & Turnbull, tells Hunker, "A lot of design is based on a white male model. [However], being an Asian American helps me recognize that buildings serve a diverse array of people and will continue to [do so] over time." He goes on to add that most buildings are unconsciously designed to accommodate the proportions of an able-bodied white male, an approach that "ignores the different shapes, sizes, and abilities of everyone else." That said, when Lee designs spaces, he tries to step out of this traditional white male model with the understanding that different people should have equal access to a space.

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For Vishaan Chakrabarti, who is of Indian descent and is an architect, founder, and creative director of architecture studio PAU, his AAPI identity also significantly influences how he approaches his work. "We design through the lens of who we are," Chakrabarti tells Hunker. "As a South Asian immigrant, for example, I think I have a worldview that is less binary and rigid than many of the designers I meet. And as someone who has experienced a great deal of racism in this field, creating a more pluralistic world with a pluralistic team has become central to what I do."

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But despite the creative power of diversity, architecture — like many other industries — is fraught with racism. Some of these problems manifest as explicit incidents, while others are more subtle. In either case, such issues can present a myriad of challenges for AAPI professionals, making it difficult for diverse voices to contribute their fullest potential.

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Consider the following anecdote from Jing Liu, an architect and founding partner of the company SO-IL, who describes how her professional challenges evolved as she climbed the ladder. "When I was young and working for other offices, I never felt disadvantaged as an Asian woman," shares Liu, who is of Chinese descent. "However, as the principal of a practice [competing] for high-stakes projects, it become more evident that committees' and boards' preferences are often skewed toward familiar faces." (In other words, white faces.)

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Chakrabarti describes a similar leadership-related hurdle that he experienced during the early 2000s, when he was an associate partner at a firm's New York office. A senior partner explicitly told him that he would never make full partner because, in that office, such partners are always white people and those of Jewish descent. "The words still ring in my ears," says Chakrabarti.

But again, racially motivated incidents can also be less blatant, often reflecting the prejudiced perspectives infused so deeply in society's everyday dialogue. Lee, who is of Chinese descent, shares several examples: "I've heard disparaging remarks about cheaply made products from China, even though no one seems to remember that high-end products like cell phones are made in China. I've been asked by a client if I knew a certain Chinese family in the area, implying that since we are both Chinese, we would know each other. At a site visit, a person asked me if I'd been to the site the week before. I told them that I hadn't, but they insisted that I had been there. As it turns out, they got me mixed up with another Asian man who had been there the previous week." These experiences have increased Lee's awareness of how he's perceived in the field, noting that he constantly feels the need to prove himself — even though he's been in the profession for two decades.

Reddy is familiar with this feeling. She explains, "My early experiences in the field as a young female intern and new immigrant to this country left me with the distinct impression that although I worked hard and produced good work, my opportunities to be included in interesting projects [were] limited." She goes on to share that she had interned at two firms — one that was primarily white and one that was primarily Black — and she experienced more support in the latter.

"These observations shaped me more as a person than in my work, making me aware that I would need to not just do good work — but to see the context I was in with new eyes and learn to advocate for myself if I were to be given the opportunities I wanted," says Reddy. In other words, in order for Reddy to move ahead in her field, she had to begin learning how to actively champion herself, especially in cultures where BIPOC voices were not common.

Similarly, Chou tells Hunker that she's had to prove what she knows. "I've been overlooked during meetings for the perspective of male (and sometimes junior) colleagues. That may or may not have been because of my Asian heritage [or gender], or for another reason," says Chou, adding that the subtle nature of such encounters and intersectional biases can make it hard to know their basis. Similar questions have come up for Lee, too. "The incidents I've experienced have often been less overt and left me wondering if my race played a role in them," he tells Hunker. This was especially true when he first entered the profession, though "there are still times when I wonder if I'm being treated differently because I'm Asian American," notes Lee.

Hopefully, as awareness of racial and social issues continues to gain attention, such experiences will eventually fade from the architectural narrative. And while the industry is slowly becoming more diverse, it's important to remember that true change requires time and resources. "I think it's a matter of practical support and opportunities at cultural, societal, institutional, and governmental levels, [and] not performative allyship," Reddy tells Hunker. (Performative allyship is the act of displaying support for marginalized groups for the sake of social brownie points, rather than genuine commitment to dismantling harmful systems.)

"There's a consciousness toward Asian American Pacific Islanders and BIPOC people in architecture, especially among younger professionals that I'd like to see continue," adds Chou. "We need to expand pipelines and support them to go into these fields from early childhood all the way through to professional practice."

As for people outside of the architectural practice? For many, it's easy to view the industry through the lens of the physical buildings they see. But as the AAPI experiences in this story demonstrate, architecture is much more. Not only does it play a major role in shaping and reflecting culture, but it also has the power to create inclusive spaces — so long as the design table is inclusive, too.

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