To increase diversity in architecture, USC’s A-Lab nurtures South L.A. high schoolers

The semesterlong architecture immersion course gives students rare opportunities — and a glimpse into a field that just might be a perfect fit.

March 02, 2022 Ron Mackovich-Rodriguez

Fewer than 5% of licensed architects in the United States are Black or Latino, so there’s a push to get more students of color into the architecture school pipeline. The A-Lab Architecture Development Program, a partnership between the USC School of Architecture and local schools that’s already gained momentum, just landed on campus.

Walk through Harris Hall any weekday morning and you’ll come across a class that looks purposefully different. The students are younger. There are three girls for every boy. They are Black and Latinx. And they’re not in college — yet: They’re juniors from Washington Preparatory High School in South L.A., engaged in a semesterlong architecture immersion course.

Diversity in architecture: hallway
Students in the A-Lab program arrive at the USC School of Architecture at 8:30 every morning. (USC Photo/Gus Ruelas)

They occupy an airy, open space, in which generations of artists have studied. Light pours in through floor-to-ceiling windows, illuminating big desks covered with drawings and models. The room is equipped with laptops, a large-scale plotter, 3D printers and supplies for building and drawing.

Last fall, the COVID lockdown delayed the A-Lab space opening. The course’s inaugural cohort studied on their own campus.

Effort to increase diversity in architecture starts in high school

Now, 16 students from Washington Prep in South L.A. arrive at the USC School of Architecture at 8:30 every morning. They spend three hours learning the fundamentals of architecture with Gillian Shaffer Lutsko, the USC Citizen Architect Fellow for 2022-23.

“We’re creating a sense of acclimation and belonging to make sure everybody feels at home,” Lutsko said. “This is a place where they’ll be spending a lot of time.”

Diversity in architecture: A-Lab space in Harris Hall
The A-Lab space in Harris Hall is equipped with laptops, a large-scale plotter, 3D printers and supplies for building and drawing. (USC Photo/Gus Ruelas)

As part of a five-year diversity, equity and inclusion plan led by USC School of Architecture Dean Milton Curry, other faculty members and architecture students, A-Lab is offered to juniors in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

“We’re glad to see these young designers/scholars here in the center of the School of Architecture,” said Curry. “Among them are the minds that will shape the future of our collective built environments, and that journey starts here.”

A new generation considers a new option

Just a few weeks into the spring semester, models are under construction. Those models will help students build a portfolio, a key element of the architecture school application process that underserved youth don’t usually have. Washington Prep junior Cynthia De La Torre is creating hers piece by piece.

“I hadn’t looked at this as a possibility for me,” De La Torre said. “It’s broadening my school experience. I feel like I could find myself working in the field because of the hands-on building.”

Based on De La Torre’s feedback, A-Lab is fulfilling its mission: to get Black and Latinx students to see themselves as architects who can change the civic space for the better.