W.H.Y Project


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I would like you as a reader of this blog post to imagine. Imagine a city designed by the most marginalised members of our society. What would this city look like?
Imagine how this city could change the way people moved – the transport system. Imagine the impact on accessibility – from education to home and work opportunities. Imagine the value that would be placed on safety, on inclusion. Imagine if the built environment encompassed not simply buildings and public spaces … but also the way people exist within them.

As female architects, particularly women of colour, we experience marginalisation on many levels. I believe this gives us a unique point of view. To quote Liane Hartley, the co-founder of a women’s network called Urbanistas, “It gives you a little bit more of a sensitivity to what it might be like to have another vulnerability. ‘Considerate’ is the word, because you can’t include everyone in everything.”

The Guardian’s Susanna Rustin elaborates on this idea in a piece on women in architecture: “Partly, this is down to physical differences: the experience of being smaller, of being pregnant or needing to breastfeed a baby, of feeling unsafe after dark.”

For women, then, “feeling marginalised professionally can also sharpen awareness of what life is like for other excluded groups: children and young people, old people, or those with disabilities.”

This is especially relevant in the South African context, with its acute disparities between the haves and the have-nots. I would argue that in areas where resources of all kinds are limited, these disparities become even more acute, affecting especially the most vulnerable members of society: women and children, the elderly, and the differently abled. The situation becomes debilitating, affecting safety, movement and income.

So would South Africa’s cities be different if they were designed by women? The more important question, I think, is whether they would be different if more voices where heard. And I think the answer is yes, most certainly!

Unfortunately, it’s clear that the voices of black female architects are still not being heard in our country.

We hear you: The W.H.Y Project

The W.H.Y Project came into being to address the extreme marginalisation of black female architects in South Africa, and to be a platform for real transformation in the industry, through a network of mentoring relationships for women by women.

It started with the question ‘Why?’ – but it’s also an acronym for the words “we hear you”. Our mission is to establish a mentoring network for females in architecture, one that identifies the needs and provides the necessary support for students, particularly black women. We also aim to develop a platform for the sharing of resources, skills and information. The project currently has 26 mentees and 16 mentors (and we are always in search of more mentors!).

W.H.Y Project co-founder Kirsty Ronné in conversation with CIfA’s Nicola Irving and Carin Smuts.

Just recently, W.H.Y’s final event of the year was kindly hosted by the Cape Institute for Architecture (CIfA). More than 40 students and professionals attended, and the BAS third-year students from the University of Cape Town (UCT) were also given an opportunity to showcase their work. The theme of the event was “Meaningful Transformation within the Industry”.

Questions around the necessity of transformation, what meaningful transformation could look like and the ways in which one is impacted by the lack of transformation within the industry were explored. The speakers included Nicola Irving and Carin Smuts, who sit on the Strategic Committee within CIfA, as well as DHK Architecture associate director Sarah Patterson.

Discussions at W.H.Y’s final event of the year focused on the theme of “Meaningful Transformation within the Industry”.

Marginalisation: The numbers

Just how marginalised are women, especially women of colour, in our industry? I was shocked to find out the statistics when reading a Huffington Post article in November 2017 entitled “South African Architecture is Failing to Transform”. Black women make up just 3% of the total number of registered architects in South Africa – that’s 271 out of 8,842 registered architectural professionals.

The article highlighted how this low number of black women architects is indicative of the lack of transformation in a historically male-dominated field, and within the larger construction industry.

W.H.Y’s mission is to address the extreme marginalisation of black female architects in South Africa.

These sobering statistics were released by SACAP in 2015, as the council was launching the Women in Architecture South Africa (WiASA) programme. Not only are the numbers unacceptably low, but the demographics of this small group of professionals also highlight the extensive marginalisation of previously disadvantaged individuals (PDIs).*

Supporting and growing representation within our industry is what drives the work of the W.H.Y Project. Our agenda is not to generalise, glorify women, or to blame men for all of the problems we face in our inequitable cities. But we do believe that better representation within the architecture profession for the most marginalised is a necessary step to move us out of the post-apartheid, inequitable city we find ourselves in – and into the inclusive city of our imagination.

The W.H.Y project at a glance

The mission:

  • To establish a mentoring network for women in architecture
  • Through the mentoring network, identify needs and provide the necessary support for students, particularly black female architects, over their years of study
  • Through the mentoring network, identify needs and provide the necessary support for black female-owned business to grow and become the norm rather than the exception
  • To develop a platform for the sharing of resources, skills and information

We had our launch event at CIFA in April. Since then, we have been hard at work and have made the following progress:

  • Set up an NPO – established a steering and strategic committee
  • Currently in process of registering as a PBO
  • Set up a pilot project with 28 students and 16 mentors
  • Planning events for 2019, with some great speakers about relevant topics
  • Partnering with other amazing and like-minded initiatives, such as ArchiFemme at UCT
  • Networking and sharing the vision

In 2019, we aim to host events to discuss the theme of “meaningful transformation” and what that means to us as women in architecture. We would love for you to be part of the conversation!

For more information, please contact: kirsty@colabconcepts.co.za (www.thewhyproject.space)

Short Bio: Kirsty Ronné, together with father Trevor Adams, co-directs a small architectural practice called Colab Concepts Architects in Cape Town. Kirsty Ronné has also founded the W.H.Y Project, which is a platform for real transformation in the industry, through a network of mentoring relationships for women by women.

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