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60 Architects Address Discrimination in the Built Environment

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Last year, when Instagram marked #BlackoutTuesday in solidarity with BLM, the founders of Sound Advice (the not-for-profit platform exploring spatial inequality in architecture through music) Pooja Agrawal and Joseph Henry became concerned that this show of support was just that: a show. If things are truly going to change, meaningful action is urgently needed; not just easy performances of ‘allyship’. They reached out to the Sound Advice network, keen to gather the thoughts of other architects and urbanists of colour on the subject.

Now You Know is the result. Sound Advice’s first publication is a compendium of essays, poems, reflections and – yes – sound advice from 60 practitioners working in the built environment sector. By turns thoughtful, angry, poetic, reflective and urgent, Now You Know is an essential read for anyone interested in the discrimination inherent in our urban spaces – and what we must do to change it.

Photographer: Timi Akindele-Ajani

Exclusion and racial bias are built into our cities. In its debut publication Now You KnowSound Advice – the platform exploring spatial inequality in architecture – has gathered the thoughts and reflections of more than 60 architects and urbanists of colour in an extraordinary compendium of essays, poems, interviews and, yes, advice on how to address the discrimination baked into our built environment.

Crowdfunded to the tune of £19,500 by 418 supporters, the 180-page paperback is designed by Joel Antoine-Wilkinson and edited by Sound Advice’s co-hosts, the urbanists Pooja Agrawal and Joseph Henry. Its contributors range from MBEs to architecture students, artists to urban policymakers – each one accompanying their piece with a concise tip of the kind that has made the Sound Advice Instagram feed such a compelling resource, paired with a music recommendation.

Now You Know is an incredible platform for people of colour working and studying across architecture and urbanism to make their voices heard. Giving those who are often overlooked in conversations about the built environment a chance to express how we would redesign our cities, spaces, institutions and societies is a powerful step towards tackling racial inequality. Now You Know celebrates plurality and the richness of not seeing the world in any one particular way. The range of ideas, careers and lives of all people of colour are frequently reduced to a singular ‘BAME’ experience. The wealth of contributors and topics covered in these 60 essays suggests otherwise. I feel grateful to have been given the opportunity to contribute to this important publication as an enduring resource and community where we can share pain, love, hopes, fears, music, and above all advice. – Manijeh Verghese, Head of Public Programmes, Architectural Association.

Now You Know: The Story.

2020 was a difficult year for everyone, an alternate reality in which the lives we were used to living all but stopped. But although Covid-19 touched us all, its impact was disproportionately felt by people of colour, who have suffered and died in greater numbers than white people, often as a result of urban planning issues such as overcrowded housing, lack of public space and poor air quality. Covid brought these inequalities into sharp relief, and things such as household density, proximity to neighbours, access to open spaces and essential services, and transport to work became indices of vulnerability. For people of colour, it has become clear that the powers that create the urban frameworks in which we live have rigged the game.

Then in May 2020, the murder of George Floyd sparked demonstrations across the world, with people of colour taking to public spaces just to ask the system not to kill them. It also sparked trends such as #BlackoutTuesday, when millions posted black squares on Instagram in supposed solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. For Sound Advice, however, such gestures rang hollow – a performance of ‘allyship’ that fell far short of driving genuine change.

We got angry, hurt and frustrated and realised that we weren’t the only ones. Totally fed up with how the built environment sector tackles (or doesn’t tackle) race, we wanted to hear from people who are already fighting to make the changes. What was their response to this moment? Where do they think we can go from here? How can we disrupt the inertia of the profession? – Pooja Agrawal, Sound Advice.

Determined to incite meaningful action, Pooja Agrawal and Joseph Henry reached out to their network, their friends, family and colleagues of colour and asked them what should change, and how. Over the next few months, they received a stream of considered personal and practical responses – which today form Now You Know, an insightful exploration of how architecture, design, urbanism and technology could give us the tools to develop a more just built environment.

Through Now You Know we wanted to explore a compelling alternative and more plural vision of the future in our voice and within our own space. The contributors have created an incredible manifesto so we really hope that people engage with the content in the book and don’t just leave it collecting dust on a coffee table or decorating a Zoom background. – Joseph Henry, Sound Advice.

Now You Know is available to buy for £20 from MagCulture, Tate Modern Shop, South London Gallery, AA Bookshop, Koenig at Serpentine Gallery and online from July 2021.

Sound Advice is working with Urban Learners’ Celebrating Architecture Initiative to donate books to young and aspiring architecture students. 

The accompanying Now You Know playlist is available on Spotify.