Voices and Perspectives is a series from CallisonRTKL to elevate the perspectives of our people. We are grateful for their commitment to facilitate and celebrate equality, diversity and inclusivity in our firm and beyond. Today, we’re talking to Associate Director James Lai about his commitment to being an ally of diversity and fostering inclusivity amongst all generations of architects and designers.
James Lai is an Associate Director in CallisonRTKL’s London office. He is a LEED Certified architect who has been involved in designing large-scale mixed-use projects in Europe, the Middle East and Asia. James sits on the RIBA Membership Eligibility Assessment Panel, RIBA International Validation Board and RIBA Award Judging Panel. James is on the Cambridge University Land Society committee and is Vice-Chair of the Cambridge Whitehall Group. He is also an active member of the Urban Land Institute and is Co-Chair of their UK NEXT Group and sits on the ULI Executive Committee. James is also a member of the Wandsworth Council Design review panel and a frequent guest critic at various UK universities.
Diversity of thought is paramount to the success of our profession. From race and gender to age and class, we need to have the people designing buildings for the public to reflect that. To me, one of the most valuable ways to foster diversity in our profession is to volunteer. There are many organizations in the AEC industry that help promote competition and diversity among the next generation of architects, and I know that I can lend my expertise—or, at the very least, my time—to help promote that fundamental cause.
After I graduated from University, I worked in a practice where one of the partners was a Professor at a University and some of us were invited to go back to University to teach every Friday afternoon for the post-graduate programme.
In the UK, there’s a professional body (similar to the AIA in America) called the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) and they carry our peer review process that monitors compliance with Internationally recognised minimum standards in architectural education both in the UK and overseas. Through the work that I was doing at University, I was invited to join their UK Validation panel as a practitioner in 2008.
The RIBA Visiting Board comprises a mix of architects in practice, students of architecture, academics and co-professional working in the built environment, which I participated in once or twice a year. On a typical visit, we would spend two-and-a-half days at the school of architecture talking to students, staff and academic management and reviewing students’ work. We would also review the quality of resources supporting the courses under consideration. This provided me with the first-hand experience and directly helped to shape the education of future architects. Apart from carrying out the UK Validations, I participate in international boards and, so far, I’ve been to schools of architecture in Argentina, Chile, Romania and Madrid.
In Chile, I remember we were walking past a street market before our first meeting at the institution and there was a hawker selling peppers in a supermarket trolley. The variety of colour in his trolley– and all of the other little vegetable stands around him– was just breath-taking for someone traveling from the UK, as we are not exactly known for our vibrant colour schemes. It was amazing to see how different and colourful everyday things are in different countries.
The evolution of architectural students in the past 25 years is intriguing from when I first graduated. No matter where we are, students can access the latest architectural magazines, follow the same Instagram accounts, or debate the latest architectural trends. Back in my day, we would patiently wait for the librarian to unwrap the freshly posted magazine, and we would all have to sign up on a waiting list and hope that the magazine would not go missing before our turn.
Another great organization I have been a part of is the Urban Land Institute (ULI), and it has shown me how diverse the build environment community is. I have been lucky to join them when I was part of the Young Leaders group. Currently, I am the Co-Chair of the ULI UK NEXT Group and sit on the ULI UK Executive Committee. One of the programs the ULI runs is the UrbanPlan initiative. UrbanPlan is an educational programme to help young people understand the role real estate plays in revising and regenerating urban areas. It is a classroom-based programme in which students learn about the fundamental forces that affect Urban Regeneration.
UrbanPlan has been running successfully in high schools in the US since 2003. In Europe, it started in 2014 and the UK UrbanPlan deliberately targeted schools across the UK with a high percentage of free school meals— which allows the programme to reach a very diverse demographic. Having been a Local Authority School Governor for six years, I can see how the programme has helped young people understand the role real estate plays to support social mobility and the long term success of the industry. They do this by reaching and engaging with students from diverse backgrounds and raise the aspirations of young people and promote careers in the built environment.
One of my favourite volunteer activities, though, is my involvement with the Cambridge University Land Society. The University is committed to its pursuit of academic excellence to equality of opportunity and a proactive and inclusive approach to equality. It supports and encourages all under-represented groups, promotes an inclusive culture and values diversity. I am also the Vice-Chair of the Whitehall forum– a policy discussion forum where we cover a wide range of macro-economic business, social and educational issues of the day.
No matter who we are or where we live, we all want the same thing: to be treated fairly and with respect, to live free from violence and discrimination and to have the opportunity to make choices in life. They drive genuine change by removing discrimination in laws and policies, improving law enforcement officials’ practices, making sure vulnerable groups have a say in decisions that affect them and promoting better ways of doing business and challenging negative stereotypes about marginalised groups. I’m deeply grateful for my ability to have a platform to promote the causes that matter to me and our industry at large.
 Free School Meals is a statutory benefit available to school-aged children from families who receive state benefits – e.g. Income Support or families with low income.