Experience to build on

27th April 2001 at 01:00
A scheme promoting architecture as a career choice is testing new ground. Reva Klein explains.

This may be the 21st century, but architecture as a profession is still firmly rooted in a world that is predominantly male, overwhelmingly white, resolutely middle class. Of the 28,000 qualified architects in Britain, only just over 3,000, or 11 per cent, are women; black and ethnic minority practitioners account for a measly 2 per cent.

The Royal Institute of British Architects is trying to redress this balance and for the second year is running Building Opportunity, a scheme that aims to promote architecture as a career possibility to pupils from marginalised and low-income communities as well as to raise awareness of architecture's role in forming the built environment.

This year, five inner-city London schools - three of them girls' schools - are taking part in Building Opportunity. Four or five Year 10s from each school, chosen on the basis of their interest, will be going through the three-phase project, which involves an introductory workshop followed by workshops at their schools and then carefully supported work placements.

Last month participants were introduced to architecture in a morning of workshops and presentations at the RIBA. As well as being given the task of collaboratively planning their model town, they heard from black architects about their experiences of the training and the profession.

Malcolm Phillips of the Stephen Lawrence Trust, which is also involved in the running of the scheme, explained how the Trust is promoting architecture in primary and secondary schools throughout the country. Stephen was on work placement with a firm of architects at the time of his murder in south-east London and in his memory the Trust has been set up to provide encouragement, bursaries and support for other young black students thinking of going into the profession.

The second phase is a series of two-day workshops at each school, designed to get the students to "think like architects". Their task is to address what needs to be improved in their school grounds and to come up with plans for improvements. A two-week placement in an architectural practice in their summer term is the final phase. Each student is assigned a mentor, responsible for orientating and supervising them in their work, which will involve tasks set by the employer and Building Opportunity co-ordinator. In November, an exhibition of work produced by the students during their workshops and placement will be on show at the RIBA and will be reviewed by architects and other related professionals.

Chris Nasah, the Building Opportunity project officer and a former technology teacher, is enthusiastic about progress so far. "We were thrilled with last year's pilot scheme. Out of the seven students who took up placements in architectural firms, five definitely want to go on to become architects."

Michelle Holloway, a technology teacher who was involved in the project last year at Northumberland Park community school in Haringey and this year at Highbury Fields girls' school in Islington, has picked up ideas from the project that she uses in her curriculum teaching. She says: "For our Year 11 project this year, I'm asking them to design a shopfront to get them thinking about and working on an aspect of the built environment." For her, the strength of the project is as much in the way it encourages young people to think about their environment and their relationship to it as its promotion of architecture as a future career.

It is also about "taking control of your future. Teachers always expect parents to tell their kids about careers and parents expect the teachers to do it. What you get is a lot of buck-passing when it comes to telling kids about the possibilities open to them."

With a profession traditionally so esoteric and elitist as architecture, it takes an initiative like the RIBA's to break through that stalemate and offer something that neither inner-city parents nor schools may have thought much about. The plan is to widen the scope of Building Opportunity. "We're looking for partnership funding so that we can branch this out to the regions," says the RIBA's director of education Leonie Milliner. "And we want to track students who go through the project, to see what choices they make in further and higher education."

The teachers say the opportunity for technology students to be asked to analyse problems in their immediate environment and develop plans for tackling them makes the curriculum more relevant. It also has knock-on effects in terms of students' perceptions of their surroundings and the rights and responsibilities they have to change things.

Michelle Holloway says: "It makes participants feel more positive, more adult. They know things they redesign won't be realised but they see hope in their school environment and that there's the potential for change."

* Building Opportunity, RIBA Centre for Architectural Education, tel: 0207 307 3611

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