To kickoff Women’s History Month, two female architecture students share their experiences in a male-dominated industry and cast their vision for the future.
Architecture hasn't always been an inviting industry for women, but Meliane Koryhafou Latt and Chioma Nwachukwu aren't waiting for an invitation.
“Women can have it all,” Nwachukwu said. “We can, and will, make waves in this industry.”
Nwachukwu is from Nigeria and came to Texas Tech University in the fall of 2018. She is now a senior in the College of Architecture and plans to graduate with her bachelor's degree in architecture this May. Koryhafou Latt is from Ivory Coast and came to Texas Tech as an undergraduate in 2015. She is now a graduate student, anticipating a May graduation as well.
“Being a woman in architecture is complicated, especially in Africa because people don't expect you to go into that field,” Koryhafou Latt said. “My father is an architect and I remember going to his office when I was young. On the wall, there was this list of the top 100 architects in Ivory Coast. I only counted five women. That really stuck with me.”
When Koryhafou Latt told her dad she wanted to follow in his footsteps, he was worried for her, not because he didn't think her capable, but because he knew how hard it would be.
“My father only knew one well-known female architect in the country. He said people thought she must hate men to be competing with them,” Koryhafou Latt said. “Even at that young age, I thought ‘No, she's just tough, and that's who I want to be like.'”
Movers and shakers
Nwachukwu and Koryhafou Latt both plan to move back to Africa and open architecture firms in their home countries.
“I want to provide affordable and sustainable housing in Nigeria,” Nwachukwu said. “It's frustrating how many slums we have because the resources to build better housing are there, it's just not a priority to the government. Being in a creative field like architecture, the government appreciates us, but doesn't feel they need us. Then, being a woman on top of that is a challenge. But I want to make a big statement. I want to get the message across.”
The message, she said, is that affordable housing in Nigeria is possible. According to Nwachukwu, in developing countries, people have been taught only to see problems, rather than opportunities.
“Nigeria is already on the right track and may not know it,” Nwachukwu said. “We use a lot of concrete, which is a sustainable material because it has thermal mass. It's ideal for such a hot environment because it absorbs heat in the day and releases heat at night. If we could add onto that by creating more natural light and solar panels, it would make a huge difference. The materials are there, we could just do it in a more aesthetic and affordable way.”
But it's not just about aesthetics for Nwachukwu.
“If we can get children sheltered and cared for, we would have more children in school which in the long run means less crime,” Nwachukwu said. “I am tired of seeing young children out baking in the sun. This is a problem with a simple solution – not an easy one, but simple.”
Koryhafou Latt has a similar vision.
“My focus is on urban planning,” she said. “The capital of Ivory Coast, Abidjan, is the main destination for people even though we have other great cities. And so, people are building in any type of space they can find and most housing is not affordable. Then, those with very low income find themselves in informal settlements that risk being destroyed.”
Another challenge the country faces is retaining workers. Koryhafou Latt says it's a great place to find a job, but many leave to work in Europe or the U.S. because of the country's informal buildings and low-quality infrastructure.
She plans to design commercial projects such as offices, restaurants and community buildings that impress and inspire people to stay and take local jobs.
“This also will drive down crime and boost the economy,” Koryhafou Latt said. “The challenge is that in Abidjan we need to think of ways to maximize the space we have. This is not a fresh slate, there have been ideas that have not worked, and now we have to go back in and work around those.”
Not a far-fetched idea for any woman in a male-dominated industry.
Finding the drive
Nwachukwu and Koryhafou Latt are confident and capable designers, but they admit they didn't arrive at Texas Tech feeling that way.
“My confidence has grown over time,” Koryhafou Latt said. “When I first arrived as an undergraduate, it seemed everyone around me had strong backgrounds in art and design. They had planned to pursue architecture for years. I had only decided on it the year prior, so it was quite intimidating.”
Koryhafou Latt recalls sitting next to a classmate her first year who could sketch portraits free hand, while she herself had no background in drawing.
“I had studied music because I had no idea I'd go into architecture,” Koryhafou Latt said. “So yes, there were some things I had to learn very quickly.”
The confidence she needed the most, though, was not technical.
“The most intimidating thing of all is being the only Black woman in my graduate cohort,” Koryhafou Latt said. “At times, I've wanted to quit. It's a hard program and feeling like the cards are stacked against you doesn't help.”
However, the female representation in the College of Architecture has been a saving grace for both women.
Professors such as Hendrika Buelinckx, Elisandra Garcia and Terah Maher have been everyday reminders that women can, and do, succeed in this industry.
“We have powerful female faculty members at Texas Tech,” Koryhafou Latt said. “I got to take an elective taught by Buelinckx that was all about famous female architects. That course was a game changer for me. It was inspiring to see people like me, doing what I want to do.”
Sadly, the representation found in Texas Tech's faculty seems the exception, rather than the rule, in architecture.
Nwachukwu is ever aware of this dynamic.
“Architects already have to work hard, but women, and especially women of color, have to work three times harder, all to prove a point that doesn't need to be proven – that we belong in this field,” Nwachukwu said.
While Nwachukwu knew being a woman would add certain obstacles to her career, she was surprised that her ethnicity has played a significant part as well.
“There is the rest of the world, and then Africa,” Nwachukwu said. “For the longest time, I didn't even identify as Black because that was a subconscious part of my identity, living in Africa. Being Black makes you the majority, not the minority. But when I moved to the U.S., it was more of an emphasis.
“Nigeria is focused on what you can do, but America is very focused on who you are.”
Nwachukwu wants to be seen as a great designer. But she says she is often seen as a Black, female minority who also is an architect.
When she moves back to Nigeria, there will be added cultural dynamics.
“I think it's powerful being a woman in architecture, especially with our cultural background,” Nwachukwu said. “The African aunties expect you to get married and have children; architecture is not in the plan.”
Nwachukwu and Koryhafou Latt note their cultures are more accepting of women as doctors, arguably a more rigorous career, than as architects.
“When you break it down, architecture is about building,” Nwachukwu said. “When you think of the verb ‘to build,' it sounds masculine. Whereas the verb ‘to care' or ‘to heal' can have more feminine connotations.”
While no one is surprised to meet a female doctor these days, they still seem caught off-guard by female architects.
Nwachukwu and Koryhafou Latt suggest the way to make this less surprising is to surround yourself with the women who are pioneering this space.
“I'd never noticed how important it was to be around women who've made it,” Koryhafou Latt said. “My cousin works in technology and she is fearless. I learned a lot from her when I moved to the U.S. If you're the only woman where you are, find other strong women. Maybe they're not in your office or your cohort, but they're out there.”
Nwachukwu's graduating class is 20% female, but she knows those numbers will keep rising.
“I want other women to know we can do this; we can have it all,” Nwachukwu said. “We can have the futures we want, all while shaking up architecture for the better.”