Chicago Nonprofit Opens Architecture Industry to Diverse Voices

Growing up in Oak Park, an area imbued with the legacy of Frank Lloyd Wright, it was hard for Maya Bird-Murphy to avoid the influence of the famed architect.

“Subconsciously, [Frank Lloyd Wright] was a major influence on me,” Bird-Murphy said. “I acquired architecture because I was always experiencing it and my dad worked downtown, so I was constantly going downtown and surrounded by architecture.”

Her passion for design led her to major in architecture at Ball State University, where she says she was the only African-American architecture student in her 2014 class.

“It was awkward and uncomfortable a lot of the time,” Bird-Murphy said. “Especially if any kind of social idea came up and I felt like I kind of had to represent African-Americans in my classes – no one should be in that situation.”

Bird-Murphy’s college classroom could serve as a microcosm for the architecture industry – a field marked by a lack of diversity.

Of licensed architects in the U.S., 85 percent are white and 64 percent are male, according to a 2017 report by the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards.

And in 2007, the Directory of African American Architects reported that just two-tenths of a percent of licensed architects are African-American women.

In order to expose more Chicago youth to the industry, Bird-Murphy founded Chicago Mobile Makers in 2017. The nonprofit offers free or low-cost architecture and design classes in schools and community spaces throughout the city.

Bird-Murphy, who’s also a marketing coordinator for the architecture firm Valerio Dewalt Train Associates, has found that a child’s surroundings have an important impact on their professional future.

“It’s very hard to find the architecture field if you live in a place where there’s not much architecture,” Bird-Murphy said. “We did a workshop in East Garfield Park, where there are a lot of empty lots and buildings, so if you’re seeing that, you’re not going to think about designing buildings – it’s not in the forefront of your brain.”