Rachel Sayers is an architect and partner in Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios where she heads their Equality and Diversity Group.
What do you understand by the term activism?
Personally I think strongly held values is at the root of all activism. In a project it’s saying ‘we just don’t think that’s the right thing to do’ and choosing how you work overseas to make sure you’re not going to be swayed in your values.
And then there’s the side which says ‘we’re part of an industry which sees ourselves as leaders in some areas’ so we are founder members of Architects Declare and One Planet Living.
We also seek out clients who want to be pushed and who want to be challenged and to have somebody who can help them understand how they can be more sustainable.
Is the profession doing enough to raise awareness about the relationship between construction and climate change?
As architects we might be on the front foot but I’m not at all sure the rest of the world is ready to hear it yet. Clients are well informed but I think they’re quite stuck for budgets and the logistics of their own businesses. But one by one people are getting on board and institutions are feeling the pressure and they’re coming to us and asking ‘how can we do this?’. So I think we’re influencing from the inside of project but I don’t see our voice in the argument particularly loudly in society.
Does the profession have influence when it comes to these big global issues like climate change and homelessness?
I think some of the power has been eroded within project teams. We don’t have that status anymore. I don’t think we’re as involved in influencing society as we could be and should be. It’s about a much broader set of people than just us, and that’s good, but I don’t think we have as much power to our elbow as we’d like.
Why do you think it took the death of George Floyd for companies to examine their own attitude to diversity and racism?
For us, it’s been an ongoing conversation for many years. But after the Black Lives Matter protests we had a whole lot of talks and workshop sessions just unearthing and revealing to ourselves the issues around racism.
We’ve got to have a better understanding of society and who we’re designing for and where the barriers are and where the physical environment can be a hurdle for some people and the assumptions we make so we don’t fall into those traps that we’re all the same.
So being a group of designers who can design more completely for society is really important is one thing. The other is not missing out on talent just because there are blockages in the way education happens or the demands that are made which starts as a student.
What has changed in the last 17 months?
There’s an intensity to the discussion partly because of the intensity of the pandemic and being in lockdown and people experiencing these emotional responses to something that’s happened in the news. I think there’s a more serious grasping of the issues and asking ‘what are we doing about it this week’?
Has this helped FCBS increase its workplace diversity?
It is changing but it’s slow, partly because for a year and half we haven’t had many new starters. We have reviewed our recruitment strategies which takes longer because you are casting your net much wider – and it’s a constant chipping away at any of the default positions we might have. But I think we acknowledge that while we’re on the front foot of it and we’ve got lots of initiatives, the profile won’t change overnight.
And we’re not very good at saying what it’s like to work for us and expressing who we are. If you come to our website and you say ‘I can’t see anyone who looks like me’, you might not apply, despite good design credentials. So we’re just trying to ensure that we talk about what it means to be inclusive, what it’s like to be here day in day out.
What are you looking for from entries to the inaugural Activism Award?
I’d like to see a mixture of small-scale ideas-led endeavours about things that are deeply wrong with our society and have emerged as a result of observations in this very reflective but very intense time – asking ‘there’s a problem there, what can I do to fix it?’
Is there a danger that once life is fully back to normal all these initiatives will stall?
We must avoid tipping back into norms and come up with some really bold ideas to address things we’ve culturally accepted. In a way winning the Prize won’t be the difficult part but it’s the follow-through with authority and influence that’s going to be the challenge so this network of activity is brought more into the centre of how we operate as architects.
The Activism Award is free to enter and has a £1000 cash prize. It is supported by Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios and Wallpaper*. The deadline is September 2nd.