Architect Elsie Owusu is campaigning to become the first nonwhite woman president in the 185-year history of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA). From July 3 to August 7, RIBA’s 44,000 members will vote for a new leader, picking between Owusu, establishment favorite Alan Jones, and U.S.-based British architect Philip David Allsop. But Owusu’s path to the nomination is the most fraught. An elected RIBA Council member since 2014 and vice chair of the London School of Architecture, Owusu has been praised for leading renovations on the UK Supreme Court building and Green Park Station transit hub. She has also been snubbed by some for accusing RIBA of institutionalized racism and sexism. But despite what she says have been dismissive comments from peers, “death threats” from a fellow Council member, and a failed 2015 bid for RIBA’s vice presidency, Owusu launched a Twitter-based campaign in 2017 to increase RIBA’s diversity called “+25.” Her efforts raised the number of nonwhites on the governing council to a historic 12 from one—herself—and earned support from colleagues David Adjaye, Allison Brooks, and Richard Rogers.
An alum of the Architectural Association School of Architecture, Owusu, 64, spoke to RECORD about her contentious campaign, her vision for RIBA’s future, and her own nimble practice.
You’re not the first RIBA candidate to champion diversity. If you win, in what new ways will you boost inclusion?
We would embrace the digital future and model ways to truly work globally. For example, I have a virtual practice. Everyone works remotely across countries. When you work online it is easier to focus on the job at hand, and you don’t worry about gender, class, and race. You leapfrog all of that. You could design something in London, send drawings to Lagos by WhatsApp, and, one day, view the construction site using a drone. Gone are the days of site inspections and muddy boots. You focus on talent and skill. It is a new mindset.
Why did you join RIBA initially?
When I started my own practice, clients would say, “We want to give you work, but you haven’t got ‘RIBA’ after your name.” There’s a perception that you’re not a proper architect without it. It’s a very strong brand. When I joined in 2014, Jane Duncan, the president at the time, asked me to be a “Role Model,” one of 12 architects asked to share their personal stories on the organization’s website as a way to promote the idea that RIBA and the profession are open to people like them. Initially, I said no. I didn’t want to represent an organization where I didn’t feel fully engaged. But she convinced me it was important.
How did you make the journey from Role Model to public critic?
I woke up. In 2015, the Architects Registration Board, which regulates the profession, surveyed the industry and reported that the number of black and minority-ethnic architects in the UK was shrinking. Things had gotten worse. Around the same time, I had witnessed fellow Council members making sexist jokes about Jane during meetings.
That prompted you to speak up about behavior inside RIBA?
Yes. You think that these organizations have got the message after the groundswell movements of the 1950s onward. Then you realize the gains you thought you’d made have been set back.
But RIBA has had three women presidents. How can the culture still feel exclusive?
I’ve gotten abusive e-mails asking that same thing, from women I had considered my friends. “They’ve had women presidents. How could it be prejudiced?” It’s like saying Theresa May is Prime Minister, how could there still be sexism? The fact is, there’s an aspect of self-protection in this reaction, meaning women who make it through filters and gatekeepers don’t always turn back to help other groups. Sometimes they pull the ladder up behind them, because they don’t want to expose themselves to ridicule or danger from the majority.
You founded an organization in Ghana that teaches architecture to young children. Can such initiatives also create goodwill between UK firms and architects who feel rejected by the system?
If we can get them to stop listening to everything around them telling them that they don’t matter. Young people from racially and ethnically diverse backgrounds don’t have access to powerful networks in the UK, but they do have connections back home. We need people in charge to recognize that as an opportunity. They have the capacity to transform their own countries and create wonderful projects for the UK.
Editor's Note, 7/5/18: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Owusu's election would make her the first nonwhite president in RIBA's history. Rather, she could become the first nonwhite woman president.