Updated: Mar 29, 2021
By Joelle Weir
Architect Camille Mitchell talks about the importance of introducing young people from marginalized communities to the arts.
"Form follows function” is the basis for the design of anything in this world, from buildings to cars, chairs, streets, and roadways. For architect Camille Mitchell, just as the design of a structure should relate to its purpose, so, too, should the built environment reflect all the people who will occupy its spaces.
Mitchell, an architect with Gensler — a global architecture, design, and planning firm — recognizes the lack of representation of Black, Indigenous, and people of colour communities at architecture and design firms shaping community landscapes across the nation.
“If I’m working on a university or if I’m working on a bank for the Black community, are Black people at the table to also be making decisions?” she asks. For example, the size of a typical hospital room is designed based on the typical nuclear family with two parents and two kids. The hospital room may not be big enough for a family from the BIPOC communities, which sometimes include grand-parents, aunts, and uncles. It’s not unreasonable, she says, to expect the structures built in predominantly Black or Indigenous neighbourhoods to be more inclusive of these communities’ needs.
In 2007, Mitchell read an article on architecturemagazine.com that cited 0.2 percent of 91,000 licensed architects in the U.S. were Black women. She saw the disparity as something that gave her the drive to keep going.
“That was discouraging because I was completing my undergraduate degree. I was getting ready to start my master’s, and it was sort of confirmation that I was entering a profession where I didn’t exist…. Seeing that article wasn’t a deterrent for me, it was more like a reality check,” she states.
Over 10 years, the number has only grown to 0.3 per cent, according to Curbed magazine in 2017. By 2018, only three per cent of architects who completed the Architecture Experience Program in the U.S. were Black, according to a report by the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards.
One trend Mitchell noticed is the absence of similar data in Canada. “You can’t point to a statistic and say, ‘This is an issue, or there’s a problem’, if there’s no data to support it,” she notes. At a time when the country is roiling from a pandemic and confronting unrest due to social injustice, she takes comfort in knowing leaders of large firms and at institutions such as the University of Toronto are looking inward and are actively working to collect these data.
As the child of parents who emigrated to Canada from Trinidad, Mitchell points out that she had the benefit of having a father who was a draftsman, exposing her to the tools of the industry. “Since I was a child, I was always aware of the built environment,” she says. “I always had a drafting board in the house.”
Mitchell and her three siblings didn’t go to summer camp; instead, they went to open houses with their mother, who had an interest in interior design. Mitchell recognizes her own privilege in having these early examples and wants to provide the same inspiration for young people today.
She notes that a perception prevails within some BIPOC communities that the arts don’t lead to reliable careers. Unless children have relatives who work in architecture and design, it’s difficult to imagine a place for themselves in this field. Mitchell believes that the more Black and Indigenous youth enter this industry, the more of a win it will be for companies aspiring to achieve greater representation of the wider community.
In 2017, she co-founded the Black Architects and Interior Designers Association, an organization that supports diversity, equity, and inclusion within the industry. BAIDA works with schools and universities to build a pipeline that would introduce the industry to Black children at a younger age and create scholarships for Black children who are in high school and are interested in pursuing a career in the arts.
“If there is disproportionate representation of Black astronauts and deep-sea divers, I can understand because we as humans don’t need to live in those spaces, but we do need to live within our built environment on Earth,” Mitchell points out. “We need to have an impact on our housing, schools, malls, and churches, and design with our community in mind.” She adds that more representation in the industry will lead to more people from the BIPOC communities becoming the clients in these fields.
Mitchell speaks of how her parents had always set aside a portion of their income to send back to their family in Trinidad. She believes there will be a time when people from BIPOC communities will no longer have those familial ties to other countries and more of their wealth will be spent here in Canada. As generational wealth builds, they will start to invest in income properties.
“I would like to see Drake put his money behind a condo and real estate, and the same way people were rushing to buy or rent spaces in Trump Tower, just because Donald Trump’s name was on a building, I would like to see that within the Black community,” she says. At face value, this statement seems audacious, but it’s not without merit. If Kanye West’s “Ararat” Yeezy Foam sneakers sold out in hours, just think what a Drake-inspired “OVO Towers” could do in terms of sales of units.
Mitchell draws inspiration from Dori Tunstall, dean of the Faculty of Design at Toronto’s Ontario College of Art and Design. She is the first and only Black dean of a design faculty in the world. When Tunstall started in the position, she pledged to add more full-time Black faculty members to the program during her tenure. She also aims to decolonize design education.
Mitchell beams as she discusses her new initiative with BAIDA, which she hopes will help start the process toward decolonization of the design curriculum in Canada. “We’re talking with the University of Toronto and the University of Waterloo about putting more Black faces in front of all students — Black design critics, more Black work to be featured in architectural history — so we’re not just going to stop at the pyramids,” she explains.
The social climate today has spurred a movement around the world to dismantle anti-Black systemic racism. As Mitchell continues to call for more diversity in architecture and design education, it’s evident her dedication and mentorship is rewarded with an ever-growing platform from which she can spread knowledge and awareness and inspire more people from all backgrounds to shape their own landscapes.