We caught up with alumna Elizabeth Chu Richter, FAIA, CEO of Richter Architects and 2015 President of the American Institute of Architects. Learn about defining moments in her career, her vision for a more equitable future, and her advice for students and recent graduates.
UTSOA: Can you describe a defining moment in your education or professional career that had a significant impact on how you view diversity and equity?
Elizabeth Chu Richter (ECR): From the first day I arrived at the School of Architecture, it was evident that the profession lacked diversity. I remember searching for books about women architects in the library. I came across Julia Morgan and Mary Colter. That was about all I could find. I had to have faith that women can and will succeed in the architecture profession. Today, the search is a lot easier with the internet, and the number of successful women in Architecture has grown.
One other memorable moment was when Robert Venturi and Denise Scott-Brown came to lecture at UTSOA. It was the first time for me as a student to meet a successful husband and wife team. Years later, as national AIA President, I was beyond thrilled to be the person designated to call Denise Scott-Brown to announce that she and Robert Venturi had been chosen to receive the AIA Gold Medal. It was the first time in the history of the AIA that a married couple, who worked together professionally, was the recipient of the prestigious award. The likelihood of such rewarding collaborations is greater than ever before as the ratio of men and women entering schools of architecture are about 50/50.
Role models are important. If we are receptive, they are often right in front of us. For example, my trailblazing mother showed me what courage looked like. As a young widow, she crossed the Pacific Ocean with her six young children to pursue the American Dream. In the late 1970s, my fellow board members at the YWCA showed me what diversity and inclusiveness looked like. The board was comprised of women of diverse races who were professionals, stay-at-home mothers, and community volunteers. Their ages ranged from 30 to 70. All of them were respectful of one another and all working together for a common goal to improve opportunities for women and girls.
I believe equity in Architecture is impacted by the profession’s earning power. Too often, we hear about long hours and low pay. This is likely not the first career choice for people who wish to rise from poverty, support a growing family, and payback high college debts. Young people want to do good and do well. To attract and retain bright people of all races and genders, we need an accessible profession that has high impact and high earning power.
UTSOA: Tell us a bit about your career path.
ECR: I didn't know at the beginning that the path to my career was going to be a long journey. After graduating, I was ready to start my career and get licensed. I married a fellow architecture student, David Richter. That was 1974, and we headed for Miami where David had interned the previous summer and had a job offer. Upon arrival, we were met with the impact of an oil embargo and an economy in recession. There were no jobs to be found for new graduates. Soon, we returned to Dallas where I worked at my mother’s restaurant and David built furniture. Subsequently, we moved to Corpus Christi to build a house for David’s parents. We both found jobs there. When our first child was born, we decided that building a family was important. I gladly set aside my career, knowing that I would re-start when the time was right. Twelve years and three children later, at the age of 40, I went back to pursue a full-time career. I restarted and worked as an intern, completed the IDP requirements, passed the licensing exam, and became an architect. Since then, everything in my career has been at double time. I'm enjoying a wonderful family and a rewarding career.
As an alumna of the UT Austin School of Architecture, are there any courses and/or experiences that were significant in positioning you for success?
I remember the fun of exploration in my first two years of basic design and drawing. The analytical thinking and research on proxemics, personal space, ethnic cultural territoriality and communications with Professor Al DeLong helped to shape my fondness for design projects in the public realm.
UTSOA: How can architects and designers, broadly speaking, positively contribute to make American cities more equitable, healthy, fair, safe, and beautiful?
ECR: Cities that focus and commit their resources to developing and maintaining public infrastructure and amenities that are pedestrian friendly will inevitably support equity, good health, and beauty. Having spent my formative years in Hong Kong, I have an appreciation for an urban environment that offers diverse mobility options for citizens. Young and old, rich and poor, all have choices when it comes to transportation. This ensures livability for people of all ages and social and economic statuses. Healthy cities put people first.
A city that values emotional well-being is ahead of the game. A city that offers a diversity of movement is bound to grow in a healthy direction.
Cities are the sum of their people. Raising public awareness is an essential component of designing healthy and sustainable cities. Architecture and urban design are not about feeding the ego of the creators. They are about feeding the minds and bodies of those who occupy the cities’ spaces and places. It's about helping others see the value of a thoughtful, well-planned environment that is flexible, beautiful, respectful, and inclusive.
It is essential that architects and designers be involved in the community and lead discussions about the impact of infrastructure on livability, sustainability, resilience, and health. The more discussion in the public realm, the more knowledgeable decision makers become.
Every project is a collaborative opportunity to elevate the discourse. We should move beyond architects as form makers. We are more than that. There’s no need for one-upmanship. Social media shows us there is plenty of creativity around the world. We need to filter the noise and allow time to test successes. Former Acting Surgeon General Boris Lushniak once told a group of architects that we are essentially public health workers. He is right in that we, as architects and urban designers, have the ability to design and build healthy, equitable, and beautiful environments. We can design to eliminate waste— to conserve money, material, manpower, energy, and water. As Lushniak said, we have the ability to “promote health, prevent diseases, and prolong life.”
UTSOA: With a distinguished career as a practitioner, can you offer some reasons to be optimistic about the profession concerning race and gender in the built environment?
ECR: It is highly encouraging that approximately 50% of architecture students are women. We have made progress. However, there remains a significant lack of diversity in the practice environment. As of 2015, only 19% of full-time practitioners are women. The good news is that the profession is taking note. The AIA and its collateral organizations, such as the National Council of Architectural Registration Board (NCARB) and Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture(ACSA), have acknowledged that we have a gap to narrow. It is a priority, and AIA is fully committed to making our profession more equitable, more diverse, and more inclusive.
In 2016, the AIA published a Diversity in Architecture study that examined the demographics of the profession in terms of race, ethnicity, and gender. This was an effort to quantify anecdotal information and to set a benchmark to measure achievement toward the goal. The information also provided a framework to act quickly and holistically.
During my tenure as AIA President, I appointed an Equity in Architecture Commission to develop recommendations to assist in achieving equity, diversity, and inclusiveness in the profession. The committee identified five keystone areas of focus for AIA: leadership development; firm/workplace/studio culture; excellence in Architecture; education and career development; marketing, branding, public awareness and outreach. The five keystones and eleven priorities formed a plan of action for our professional organization. Equity, diversity, and inclusiveness are now core values of the AIA Board of Directors and component organizations’ leadership.
As technology provides tools that require more brain than brawn, women as well as men are able to advance quickly and achieve success in the design and construction industries. However, the one issue that stands out as a challenge for women is the biological clock and time out for raising a family. At some point in their child-bearing or child-rearing years, women agonize over a choice between career or family. Some struggle by taking on both. Currently, we are still pretty locked into workflow and productivity measurements that came from the Industrial Age. Like the machines and assembly lines, workflow is regimented, time-based and productivity is judged by quantity of widgets produced and/or seat time. However, in a knowledge economy, the number of hours spent is not as important as creative solutions and resulting innovations.
Flexibility in work/life arrangements is highly sought-after and collaboration is increasingly valued. It will take both employers and employees making commitments to create new work models that will satisfy flexibility and accountability.
A recent AIA survey found that nearly one in five people leave the profession at some point. Some will return and some won't. For those who choose to leave the profession temporarily, individual firms and the AIA can play an important role to re-engage and re-train for the return. With expanded continuing education platforms, the AIA, firms, and universities can better collaborate to advance theory and practice in a world in which technology is rapidly changing expectations.
Education that is faster, deeper, and cheaper will open doors to many more who wish to enter our profession. Work that is adaptable and profitable will enable more practitioners to ride the economic cycles and build a legacy profession for the next generation.
UTSOA: Do you have any advice to share with our students and/or recent graduates?
ECR: We will have challenges through our career and life. It's nearly impossible to achieve work/life balance. Balance is a really state of mind. Accepting the fact that life does not stand still, and that juggling is just part of life, we might pay more attention to creating harmony. We are at once the composer, the player, and the conductor. It's finding harmony in the changing rhythms of life that transforms a cacophony to a symphony.
This interview originally appeared in the 2017 issue of PLATFORM. View the digital issue of PLATFORM: Convergent Voices.