Maya Bird-Murphy knows intimately the work of Frank Lloyd Wright. As a young child growing up in Oak Park, she toured the famous architect’s home and studio, and marveled over the maple wood Froebel building blocks that are an intricate part of Wright’s style. She often walked among the skyscrapers downtown, where her father worked.
By her senior year at Oak Park and River Forest High School in 2011, she had made up her mind. She would be an architect herself — the decision cemented when she earned the Russell C. Lissuzzo scholarship, named after local architect Russ Lissuzzo and given to students who plan to major in architecture in college.
Bird-Murphy enrolled at Ball State University in Indiana, where she was often the only African American in her classes and the only black in her entire graduating class to leave with an architecture degree.
“I think there was one African American professor in the architecture school the whole time I was there,” Bird-Murphy, 25, recalled during a recent phone interview. “We never learned about black designers. I got a very good education, but there were always these awkward moments.”
Bird-Murphy recounted one of the more awkward moments in the thesis statement she drafted for Chicago Mobile Makers while earning her master’s degree at Boston Architectural College — a nonprofit organization she started to help young elementary and high school students, particularly minorities, discover careers in the architecture, construction and design fields.
“I sat in a class where we watched ‘The Help’ as a historical guide to understanding racism and space,” Bird-Murphy recalled. “Architecture school was not made for me.”
The OPRF graduate said that she believes the sense of alienation she felt during her undergraduate studies — and still feels while working at a Chicago firm on her way to becoming a full-fledged, licensed architect — is one reason for the dearth of minority and women in the field.
According to 2017 data by the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards, fewer than 1 in 5 new architects identify as a racial minority and roughly 2 in 5 identify as women.
The absence of people of color, in particular, she said, translates into a dominant design perspective that barely deals with, yet alone confronts, issues such as affordability, poverty and gentrification. The inanimate buildings too often take precedence over living, breathing people, she said.
“In America, space segregates and encourages inequality,” Bird-Murphy said. “Eighty-five percent of the people who are building buildings in this country are white, but most of the people who [live and work] in them, and who live in segregated areas, are not white. The architecture profession and the built world is elitist and inaccessible. Non-white people must have a way to change their own spaces.”
Bird-Murphy’s organization — which includes five other people, including three architectural designers, a Chicago teacher and a writer — offers free and low-cost youth workshops encompassing design, architecture, digital fabrication, basic construction and place-making in Chicago communities.”
According to its website, Chicago Mobile Makers seeks to expand “the variety of people entering the field will create more diverse workplaces, leading to more equitable decision making and design. American spaces must reflect America.”
Currently, the organization can host entry-level workshops in schools and other community spaces, but Bird-Murphy and her team hope to scale up their capacity to offer workshops within a “mobile makerspace — a retrofitted step van that allows students to comfortably work inside or outside,” according to the website. The ultimate goal is to “someday have a permanent ‘hub’ for all our making needs.”
Bird-Murphy said she hopes her organization can help convince people that architecture should be a right.
“This is making architecture accessible to those who don’t go downtown or who aren’t exposed to the buildings or to really well-designed spaces,” she said. “My whole point isn’t that these kids need to become architects.
“It’s just showing kids they can work with their hands and for the kids who want to go into careers in the design and architecture fields,” Bird-Murphy said. “We want to advocate for them and for diverse workplaces, because that will create better design and better buildings for all people.”