Ted Landsmark, President of the BAC

March 23, 2009

Text by Dan Kaplan    Photography by Mark Alcarez

 

President of the Boston Architecture College for the past ten years, Ted Landsmark has emerged as one of the country’s leaders in working to bring diversity to the design profession. Landsmark is trained as both a lawyer and an architect.

 

Dan Kaplan: Diversity—or the lack thereof—is clearly a problem in the design and the architecture professions. How bad do you think the problem is?
Ted Landsmark: With less than 5 percent of all of the design professionals in America being people of color, the industry runs the risk of isolating itself from the changing demographics of the marketplace. That potentially creates some significant long-range problems for the credibility and sustainability of the design professions.

DK: What kinds of problems do you see ahead if the diversity is not addressed?
TL: Within architecture, there is evidence that licensed architects are involved in less and less of the new work and renovations that are being undertaken in the United States and abroad. There are multiple factors for that, but one of the considerations is that clients are increasingly inclined to want to work with people who can clearly demonstrate an understanding of their cultural values. To the extent that design professionals are less able to relate directly to different cultures and cultural values, the profession has suffered.

DK: Is change occurring? You were the head of the American Institute of Architect's Diversity Committee. What's being done?
TL: In Boston, the BSA [Boston Society of Architects] has supported activities reaching out to younger people with a focus on bringing in more diverse young people into the profession. The BAC received a $1 million grant, which we are using to reach out to high school students and to provide scholarships at the BAC.

DK: You're one of the leaders on this issue in the country. What motivated you to try to address it?
TL: I grew up in New York and I recognized that the cultural vitality of New York City was enriched because many different kinds of people contributed to it. I always wondered why that understanding of how diversity enriches professional practice hadn't spilled over into other professional fields. I came to Boston as a lawyer working with architects, and I saw that the profession of architecture was not a very diverse one. When I got to the BAC, I felt that in a quiet but focused way it was important to begin to address the issue. When I saw the relative dearth of programs, I felt an obligation as an academic leader to participate more actively in national efforts.

 DK: You were the victim of racial discrimination and violence, becoming became an icon in a famous photograph of perhaps one of the worst times for racism in Boston, in 1976. (The photograph shows a white demonstrator appearing to use an American flag as a weapon on Landsmark. The photograph, by Boston Herald American photographer Stanley Forman, won the Pulitzer Prize that year.) Can you tell me about that?
TL: I was on my way to a meeting at City Hall where a group of young people had just emerged from a meeting with [Boston City Council president] Louise Day Hicks. They were demonstrating against busing in Boston; I happened to be the first black person they encountered on City Hall Plaza, and several of the kids decided to attack me and hurt me. They were arrested that night because there was a Pulitzer Prize–winning photographer who happened to be there and got a photo of it. They pled guilty and apologized. I have since then met with a couple of them.

DK: Does the new development going on in Boston now reflect the same old perspective, or do you see some buildings that reflect the diversity of the city?
TL: Boston still tends to be seen nationally as a design community that would benefit from an infusion of creative talent that would reflect a wider range of design perspectives. That may account for why some of the more significant buildings that have been developed in Boston, and some of the most creative, have been designed by architects who are not from Boston. Given the quality of the creativity coming out of our schools, that ought not to be the case. We need to push harder to get developers and clients to accept more of a cutting edge, post-Modernist perspective.

DK: If you could sum up your work, what would you say?
TL: The design profession needs to be truly global. It is clear that our clients over the next twenty years will look less and less like the professionals who are now practicing in the United States. We have an obligation as a world leader in design practice to develop ways of diversifying ourselves.