Field Notes on Design Activism: 6

This is the sixth installment of a narrative survey in which several dozen educators and practitioners share perspectives on the intensifying demands for meaningful change across design pedagogy and practice. How is the field responding to the interlocking wicked problem that define our time — climate crisis, structural racism, unaffordable housing, rapid technological shifts? To the increasingly passionate campaigns to decolonize the canon, to make schools and offices more equitable, ethical, and diverse? What are the issues of greatest urgency? What specific actions and practical interventions are needed now?

Clockwise from top left: Material Commons," a board game created by architecture students at Morgan State University; still from Objects for Thriving, a film by Lilian Chee; site analyses of flood risks and housing quality from Danielle Zoe Rivera's UC Berkeley studio; (Greenville, California, after the Dixie fire, 2022.
Clockwise from top left: Material Commons, a board game created by architecture students at Morgan State University [Brent Sturlaugson]; still from Objects for Thriving, a film by Lilian Chee and Ian Mun; site analyses of flood risks and housing quality from Danielle Zoe Rivera’s UC Berkeley studio [Danielle Zoe Rivera]; Greenville, California, after the Dixie fire, 2022. [Janette Kim]

Noticing

In a recent episode of the podcast Millennials Are Killing Capitalism, the renowned abolitionist geographer Ruth Wilson Gilmore spoke about “noticing.” She recalled a quote from Kwame Ture (a.k.a. Stokely Carmichael), in which he states that “Marx and Engels didn’t invent communism, they noticed it; they saw what people were doing and thought about it a lot.” Gilmore explained how this act of noticing and thinking about what people are doing — more than what they are saying — is critical for contemporary abolitionists. Emphasizing that abolition is an everyday practice, she asks, “how can we have a framework that enables this noticing to happen? And how can we accumulate what we notice into some type of understanding of what we can do next?”

For the past two years, starting in the fall of 2020, I have been teaching a series of studios that imagine worldmaking after private property. This iterative pedagogical experiment was initiated with a seven-week studio taught over Zoom at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, called “After Property.” This was followed by a semester-long Zoom studio, “After Property Vol. 2,” at the Rhode Island School of Design. Last fall, I coordinated and co-taught an in-person studio, “Atlanta After Property,” with colleagues in the urban design program at Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation. Focusing on a region — metro Atlanta — that is currently experiencing rapid displacement and dispossession has made our experiments more specific. I am typing this Field Note from a hotel lobby in Atlanta, at the tail end of a field trip organized to familiarize an international cohort of students and co-instructors with the city and its sprawling suburbs, and to meet local activists, artists, designers, and stakeholders for “Atlanta After Property Vol. 2.”

Syllabus covers for the Atlanta After Property studios at the Harvard GSD, Rhode Island School of Design, and Columbia Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation.
Syllabus covers for the Atlanta After Property studios at the Harvard GSD, Rhode Island School of Design, and Columbia Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation.

From Atlanta After Property: Urban Design Studio II: American Cities & Regional Contexts, a publication of a Fall 2021 studio at the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation at Columbia.
From Atlanta After Property: Urban Design Studio II: American Cities & Regional Contexts, a publication of the Fall 2021 studio at the Columbia Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation.

The studios are framed around the question: how can we disentangle urban design and architecture from private property?

All these studios are framed around a central question: how can we disentangle architecture and urban design from private property? It’s the fundamental question facing disciplines that investigate and intervene in the built environment today, a question that addresses environmental justice while seeking to circumvent the corporate cooption of sustainability discourse (with its inherent failures to examine the comorbidities of ecological degradation and racial hierarchy). Our courses start by challenging students to identify samples: spatial practices that carve out moments offering liberation from the limitations of property. For example, one of the groups has identified the Trap Houses of Atlanta as spaces that defy the regime of property. These abandoned, boarded-up homes function as protective zones where various practices of communality — DJ sets, performances, art exhibitions — can unfold, free of surveillance.

Simultaneously, students identify sites: places in metro Atlanta that they deem to be emblematic of private property regimes. For instance, one of the sites, known as “Cop City,” is a proposed $90-million police training facility to be located in what is now a lush suburban forest. This site is surrounded by a low-income, predominantly Black neighborhood, adjacent to a former prison farm; activists camping out to defend the forest have been accused by city officials of “trespassing on private land.” Given the complexity of such sites, the samples offer conceptual counterpoints, helping to generate imaginative visions of a world after property, and reframing locations that have been overdetermined by what legal scholar Brenna Bhandar calls the “racialized regime of ownership.”

By noticing, drawing, and modeling tactics that operate against the hegemony of real estate speculation — systems that value people over property — participants in the “After Property” studios reinterpret historical and contemporary interventions in which everyday struggle begins to approach the surreal — or even the sublime. The projects generated from our observations amplify ongoing ways of making and seeing space beyond the privatized enclosure, aiming to liberate architecture from its commitment to border-making, and to actively dissolve settler-coloniality.

Emanuel Admassu


We Are All Translators

I recently spent a long weekend with my students in Greenville, California — a small town in the Sierra Nevada mountains nearly destroyed by the Dixie Fire one year ago. The immediate trauma of warming atmospheres was visible in Greenville’s vacated lots, charred hillsides, and mechanically masticated forests. Also palpable were deeper legacies of the region’s extractive economies, such as the dispossession of Indigenous Maidu people by the Pacific Gas and Electric Company (or PG&E) in order to build a hydroelectric system known as the “Stairway of Power,” along with the persistent pressure of industrial-scale timber and ranching industries on local livelihoods.

Greenville’s challenges resonate with conditions I’ve encountered in my work on urban adaptation to sea level rise closer to my home in Oakland. The politics are different. Our Greenville partners are quicker to blame housing shortages on government regulations rather than the real estate market, even as Airbnb rentals have intensified the displacement of workers from their homes. The term “climate justice” has very different associations in Greenville and Oakland. Still, the inequitable distribution of resources, power, and profit in Greenville mirrors predatory markets and environmental justice burdens visible in Oakland. In both cases, recovery from recent fires and the prevention of future floods demand nothing less than a systemic overhaul of extractive economies and negligent governance.

The downtown of Greenville, California, after the Dixie fire, 2022.
The downtown of Greenville, California, after the Dixie fire, 2022. [Janette Kim]

California College of the Arts students gathering with Dixie Fire Collaborative representatives, 2022.
California College of the Arts students gathering with Dixie Fire Collaborative representatives, 2022. [Janette Kim]

Translation allows us to relate the policy strategies, line items, and rhetoric of movement building to architectural space.

With such bold aspirations in sight, organizers in both Oakland and Greenville have forged new alliances. The East Oakland Collective has initiated restoration of San Leandro Creek, not just as a scenic landscape but as an infrastructural investment coupled with affordable housing and a site for sharing hot meals with unhoused neighbors. The East Bay Permanent Real Estate Cooperative has leveraged collective ownership to remove property from the speculative market. In Greenville, the Maidu Summit Consortium has reclaimed ownership of 2,325 acres in the Tásmam Koyóm valley, which were made available by a PG&E bankruptcy agreement. During our visit to Greenville, I was especially moved by the sight of a start-up butcher shop operating from the defunct meat counter in a downtown market. From the walk-in freezer walls to the fields beyond, one could see nested infrastructures for mutual aid — arrangements that fed first responders during the Dixie Fire now enable local ranchers to sell grass-fed beef directly to their neighbors. These initiatives might be celebrated in one context for their communalism or in another for championing local independence, but both reroute resources and profits to local communities. Both modify conventional property arrangements.

What does it mean for designers to nest themselves within such arrangements? I’ve been thinking about translation as a critical skill for designers. Translation allows us to relate the policy strategies, line items, and rhetoric of movement building to architectural space. Translation enables us to make sense of our role in communities we do not always belong to. It honors the fact that stakeholders speak different languages while forging understanding among them. I was surprised to hear my students use this word again and again during our time in Greenville. Then I realized that many in our group are immigrants, the first in their family to go to college, people who have just recently entered architecture school. We have all been crafting our skills as translators all along.

Janette Kim


For design to genuinely address climate change, designers must think of climate crisis not as a technocratic challenge, but, in the words of Farhana Sultana, as a “moral problem and justice concern.” Or in Mary Annaïse Heglar’s formulation: “To separate ‘climate action’ from ‘climate justice’ is to separate our existence from our humanity.” To acknowledge this inseparability,  addressing climate change through design requires that we reconceptualize our aims through fundamentally different processes.

From Danielle Zoe Rivera's studio at the College of Environmental Design, UC Berkeley: site analyses of climate change's impacts on flood risks (left) and housing quality (right) in colonias (rural, impoverished communities) across the Río Grande Valley of Texas.
From Danielle Zoe Rivera’s studio at the College of Environmental Design, UC Berkeley: site analyses of climate change’s impacts on flood risks (left) and housing quality (right) in colonias (rural, impoverished communities) across the Río Grande Valley of Texas. [Danielle Zoe Rivera]

Design as climate activism can benefit communities when it is well-grounded in local organizing and development.

Practically, this implies a mirrored inseparability: linking design to grassroots struggles for climate justice. Design in support of climate activism (or design as climate activism) can be of great benefit to communities when it is well-grounded in local organizing and development. This ontological realignment moves past the modes of design that Arturo Escobar has described as “creation through destruction” — design as the making only of objects, not of processes. Instead, we need to ensure that a primary aim of design activity is to confront the historical and present-day inequities instilled by such creation through destruction. We can achieve this through what Bryan Lee, Jr. calls “collective aspirations,” in which the designer is positioned as a facilitator of discussions regarding our collective futures. (For a discussion of Lee’s work, see Barbara Brown Wilson’s 2018 Resilience for All: Striving for Equity Through Community-Driven Design).

This imperative arises because design-based responses to climate change have a well-demonstrated capacity to (re)produce racism, patriarchy, and coloniality. If we are to ensure that we do not perpetuate these violent systems, replacing one wrong with another, design should function through facilitation — guiding transformations that tackle, head on, the systemic injustices that underlie inequities in the built environment and therefore generate injustices related to climate disruption. For design as climate activism, then, we should facilitate movement towards healing, with projects identifying and addressing the inherited and ongoing inequities that frame uneven exposures to climate risks. This is design as activism in an age of climate change.

Danielle Zoe Rivera


A Sense of Urgency

The impact of Covid-19 has not affected my ability to discuss the academic and legal frameworks that perpetuate systemic inequalities in design education; the pandemic has only heightened the urgent need for a free flow of discourse. It’s time to rethink teaching approaches that have been siloed, and turn to models that will stimulate fluent, transparent exchange and move us away from conversations centered on Whiteness. Both at Tuskegee and in my own work, the use of diverse narrative structures including “parables, chronicles, storytelling, counter stories, poetry, fiction, and revisionist histories” have been integral to this process. Such narratives, which relate personal experiences to broader social conditions, function as a form of “psychic self-preservation” for me, while also bridging diverse cultural experiences. (The quoted terms derive from a 1998 essay by Gloria Ladson-Billings titled “Just what is critical race theory and what’s it doing in a nice field like education?”)

My edited volume from 2016, Space Unveiled: Invisible Cultures in the Design Studio, also advocates for development of inclusive cultural perspectives and culturally relevant teaching — a distinct, yet related CRT — and is intended as a primary reference for conversations about using such material in classrooms and studios. For instance, my chapter “Blackness: An Architectural Discourse,” co-authored with Melvin J. Mitchell, cites designer and inventor Darell Wayne Fields and the studios and seminars he taught at the Harvard Graduate School of Design in 1995, which were among the first to bring awareness to the importance of race, gender inequalities, and Blackness in architectural discourse. The contributions by Kathryn H. Anthony, Akel Ismail Kahera, Sharon Egretta Sutton, and Craig L. Wilkins likewise assume that race and Blackness are central in design pedagogy and practice.

Subway Ballet: Litefeet and the Black Spatial Imaginary, project by Stephanie McMorran for the Fall 2021 Difference and Design studio at Columbia Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation.

Subway Ballet: Litefeet and the Black Spatial Imaginary, project by Stephanie McMorran for the Fall 2021 Difference and Design studio at Columbia Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation.
Subway Ballet: Litefeet and the Black Spatial Imaginary, project by Stephanie McMorran for the Fall 2021 Difference and Design studio at Columbia Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation. [Courtesy Carla Jackson Bell]

Design faculty at PWIs are uncomfortable confronting Whiteness; HBCU faculty, in contrast, are developing courses that explore race and cultural biases.

The sense of urgency regarding the implementation of culturally relevant teaching practices was highlighted by 80 faculty members and scholars at HBCUs, PWIs, and MSIs who responded to a survey I conducted in 2021. A principal theme emerged: faculty at PWIs are uncomfortable confronting Whiteness in design and practice, and express a lack of readiness to integrate such topics into their lectures. HBCU faculty, in contrast, are developing new course content and teaching methods that explore race and cultural biases, along with issues of gender inequality, social equity, diversity, and inclusion. One result of the survey was my recent article “Critical Race Theory as Architectural Pedagogy,” which goes beyond the DEI model to address structural inequalities in architecture, design, and planning programs. Too often, such programs fail to shed light not only on racism and gender biases both contemporary and historical, but on oppressive administrative and legal mechanisms, including educational systems in low-income communities, systemic segregation through zoning and redlining, and the lack of insurance coverage for people of color, to name a few. At Tuskegee University and a select few predominately White institutions, however, discussion of these issues and their effects are distributed through the architectural pedagogy.

Curricula operating at the intersections of architecture, race, and education promote design activism, and at Tuskegee we face cultural and social responsiveness head-on. In 2017, I initiated a visiting scholar program, co-taught with faculty, designers, and scholars from Dark Matter University, Columbia University, and large firms including Cooper Carry, Perkins+Will, and HOK. The visiting scholars program infuses culturally relevant teaching practices into design studios and into a new seminar course titled “Culturally Responsive Practices in Architecture” taught primarily by Roderick Fluker at Tuskegee University and Justin Garrett Moore at Columbia University; bringing together faculty at HBCUs and PWIs with designers in professional practice, we empower students from diverse backgrounds to share thoughts on integrating their cultural work and future professional lives. A related example of inventive pedagogy is being developed in Florida A&M University’s department of architecture, which offers a workshop for distance learning strategies taught in collaboration with faculty at the University of Oregon and Howard University. Such collaborations prove that, by bringing topics related to critical race theory into culturally relevant teaching practices, we can promote faculties’ ability to convene uncomfortable conversations and to critique societal and structural inequalities in architecture, design, and planning education.

Carla Jackson Bell


Activism entails taking action to incite social or political change, and thereby poses a fundamental threat to existing power structures. The entanglements that underly these structures demand mindful consideration, requiring designers to broaden their understanding of how design interacts with systems (both human and natural) — to recognize all design as a political act. What is shared by design activists, I would argue, is an ethical project rooted in justice. I am increasingly curious about how we might frame the discipline for new designers through this understanding.

Among other considerations, design education premised on design justice would require us to question how our creative and professional practices are introduced to students, how student work is evaluated, and what values are highlighted along the way. Change is required on all fronts (including the academy confronting its own internal structural dynamics and inequities). But in the interest of proposing an actionable way forward, I believe that architectural education can provide the tools to reveal and challenge the discipline’s external relationship to forces of exploitation and exclusion, both past and present, as they shape the built environment.

Ethics courses are required for most professional degrees; their lack in architecture perpetuates the false idea that the field is apolitical.

Architecture is often introduced to students stripped of socio-political context, and not surprisingly, the discipline is often complicit in naturalizing forms of extraction or domination. A required course on ethics and justice would provide tools to help students understand the complex relationships between power, protocols, and form, while framing the systemic interdependencies in which the discipline is involved, which it can potentially transform. A course on ethics is a requirement for most professional degrees, and the lack of such a course in architecture perpetuates the falsehood that architecture is apolitical. This course could be structured by themes of racial, social, and environmental justice, helping students to represent the intersectional demands that their designs will inevitably confront. Change will not come next week; re-situating the discipline’s value and critical agency is a generational project. Every graduating class yields new designers who have the potential take action toward a more just future. This potential, however, can be actualized only if we can first reckon with design’s longstanding relationship to sexism, racism, capital and class, the state, and the perpetuation of the status quo.

Neeraj Bhatia


This fall, I started teaching the 20th-century architectural history lecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. The course, titled “Buildings, Texts, Contexts: Architecture’s Multiple Modernisms,” is required for incoming Master of Architecture students, making it an important site for pedagogical intervention. The subtitle is new, and registers the inclusion of diverse voices and positions, while the title anchors the course in the curriculum’s longstanding history sequence, fondly known as “BTC.” In putting this iteration of the class together, I thought about the meaning behind each letter.

I broadened the list of building types covered by the syllabus, complicating narratives around canonical work and expanding the reach of what is typically understood as architectural history, including case studies on the role of domestic labor in housing design, or the role of construction materials in labor organizing. These expansions are political, moving our attention away from architecture’s dependence on privilege in regard to race, gender, class, and wealth, and pointing to the multiple intersectional positions involved in the construction of the built environment.

Students in Ana María León’s Harvard GSD course, “Buildings, Texts, Contexts: Architecture’s Multiple Modernisms,” gather to brainstorm ideas for their final assignment: to design an additional lecture for this history course. The assignment underlines that the course is not meant to be comprehensive, and history should always be re-examined.
Students in Ana María León’s Harvard GSD course, “Buildings, Texts, Contexts: Architecture’s Multiple Modernisms,” gather to brainstorm ideas for their final assignment: to design an additional lecture for this history course. The assignment underlines that the course is not meant to be comprehensive, and history should always be re-examined. [Ana María León]

The exercise helps students dive into complicated readings; it also shows the benefits of working collectively in the construction of knowledge.

The authors whose texts I have selected represent many different identities, and we started the course by discussing the politics of inclusion. We read bell hooks comparing analytical and experiential knowledge, Olúfémi O. Táíwò explicating what he terms “elite capture,” and Eve Tuck calling for a moratorium on damage-centered research. I incorporate some texts that have been part of the school’s tradition, but reframe them with expanded geography and renewed attention to power dynamics. For instance, a few weeks ago, we discussed reification in the context of colonialism and settler colonialism, underlining the co-constitutive characters of modernity and coloniality. At a few points in the semester, I organize “collective readings,” in which I split a text and have students work in groups to do close readings of each fragment. The notes are projected for all to see and the summaries posted in a shared document, to underline that together we are
reassembling the text in question. The exercise helps students dive into complicated readings. More importantly, it demonstrates the benefits of working collectively in the construction of knowledge.

The lectures are grounded in discussions of race, gender, body ability, class, labor, environment, materiality, and global economic networks. For example, we connect the development of suburbia and the highway system in the United States to global economies in rubber and oil and the environmental destruction these extractions cause in sites around the world. We think about cultural and biopolitical context to help us understand the spatial politics of form, the footprint of building, and the many systems that prop up the discipline — in other words, the environmental and political consequences of architecture and urban planning. The last assignment asks students to propose an additional class meeting that complements the current syllabus, with an outlined lecture, readings, and a brief reflection. This assignment, and the course at large, call on students to be more nuanced in their thinking about history, and to reflect on the role of history in reformulating the discipline.

I have learned and continue to learn from my students, as well as from multiple scholarly communities that have supported and encouraged my work. They are too many to mention, but it encourages me to be part of the ongoing and collective struggle to change our discipline.

Ana María León


While I share the desire to know how — concretely and practically — to confront the unevenly distributed impacts of climate change, I also realize that the actions we take as designers are only as good as the problems we comprehend. So, my contributions to expanding the repertoire of design activism focus on the articulation of problems as a strategy for intervention.

I offer several sets of questions, not as an academic trick to avoid offering concrete answers, but out of a sincere belief that answering these questions can lead to more effective action. Versions of these questions have guided my own work in establishing a research agenda, pursuing commissioned projects, and developing prompts for students. The questions must be tailored to suit a specific problem, and the answers gain strength through their specificity. But for the purposes of this call, I have attempted to create a generic version that takes as its target equitable climate adaptation.

The first set of questions establishes historical context:

How did this happen?
What were the contributing forces and where did they originate?
Who resisted these forces and how?
What were the main points of resistance and how were those met?
What constituted the tipping point?

Responding to these questions involves a great deal of research, which benefits at every stage from close collaboration with those confronting threat and adaptation on the ground. Again, effectiveness positively correlates to understanding.

The second set concerns the present:

What are the immediate impacts and who experiences those impacts?
What happens as a consequence of those impacts and where do they occur?
How do these consequences affect still other people and places?
Who controls these spaces and how is that control exercised?
Who and what is affected as a result?

From these questions, the system boundary of a given problem begins to take shape, which enables a clearer picture to emerge of the spatial and material variables at play. The more granular the input, the more meaningful the result.

Morgan State architecture design studio project showing a speculative redevelopment strategy that reuses building materials in the creation of a neighborhood commons, 2022.
Morgan State architecture design studio project showing a speculative redevelopment strategy that reuses building materials in the creation of a neighborhood commons, 2022. [Courtesy Brent Sturlaugson]

Students at Morgan State University School of Architecture playing a board game, "Material Commons," that simulates the equitable redevelopment of Baltimore's vacant rowhouses, and facilitates conversations among students, architects, community leaders, and government officials, 2022.
Students at Morgan State University School of Architecture playing a board game, Material Commons, that simulates the equitable redevelopment of Baltimore’s vacant row houses, and facilitates conversations among students, architects, community leaders, and government officials, 2022. [Brent Sturlaugson]

The third set of questions deals with the future:

Who gains most by maintaining the status quo?
What exactly will they gain?
Who loses if nothing changes and what are the costs?
How might the spaces and materials comprising the system be reorganized?
Who gains and who loses from this reorganization?
How are the gains and losses justified?

The questions could go on, of course. But the purpose of asking them remains rooted in action, which requires that we arrive at a point of inflection where theory shifts to praxis.

Importantly, the answers to these questions might not result in a clearly articulated problem that calls for design intervention. Sometimes, the issues demand other forms of activism, and this must also be within the repertoire of design activists. Many things are — but not everything is — a design problem.

Brent Sturlaugson


The agendas of architectural education and research are increasingly aligned with the demands of corporate practice and external funding opportunities. This neoliberal partnership comes with strings. Ironically, as architectural research and education reconfigure into applied knowledge for use in “real-world scenarios,” outcomes become ever more abstract, distanced from the kinds of lived situations that have traditionally pushed designers to think creatively. In other words, applied outcomes may function, but they often fail to inspire imaginations about what might be — or worse, cease to serve needs that lie outside a funder’s interests. And so, as an educator, scholar, and creative practitioner, I believe that architectural research and education need to be freed from our neoliberalist preoccupations. Architecture needs to recover its diversity of voices and pathways toward engagement with the world. There is more than one way for education and research to be relevant.

Faced with the discipline’s internal antagonism (torn by professional norms), the hostility of the institution (managed by research metrics), and the lack of role models or templates — yet confronted by the urgent need to take action — design activism can assume unexpected and novel forms. Some are strident, others more measured. The works of Forensic Architecture, Parlour, and Edit Collective, amongst others, attest to this multiplicity. Each transforms the tools of the trade —graphical acuity, intelligent lobbying, attentiveness to anomalies — to serve the liveliness of their practices, enhancing their abilities to speak to audiences beyond the discipline.

In Singapore, strident activism is perceived as troublemaking. Design activism here needs to be inventive.

Historically, activism has been associated with political dissent, and in Singapore, where I teach and research, strident activism is largely perceived as troublemaking. The built environment reflects this social order, emerging from a tightly controlled system of planning, development, and construction. Design activism here needs to be inventive. To cite a few examples: a citizen-led campaign emerged in 2011 around Bukit Brown, the city’s oldest Chinese cemetery, when plans for a new highway cutting across the cemetery were announced. Volunteers began to lead guided weekend walks, an ongoing intervention that has aroused public consciousness about the forested burial ground.

Still from O3 Flats, a film by Lilian Chee.
Still from O3 FLATS: Housing, heartland, home. Three women and Singapore’s public housing, 2014, a film conceived and researched by Lilian Chee, directed by Lei Yuan Bin, and produced by National University of Singapore and 13 Little Pictures Production.

Still from Objects of Thriving, 2022, a film by Lilian Chee and Ian Mun and Lilian Chee, part of the Whampoa Heritage project led by Thomas Kong, design educator at the National University of Singapore.
Still from Objects of Thriving, 2022, a film by Lilian Chee and Ian Mun, part of the Whampoa Heritage project led by Thomas Kong, design educator at the National University of Singapore.

My own films seek to accomplish something similar. The architectural essay film 03-FLATS, from 2014, documents the domestic routines of single women in their flats; it is also a work about unspoken restrictions on home ownership in a city where housing policies favor married couples, and are explicitly conditional on heterosexual marriages. In my documentary from this year, Objects for Thriving, assumptions about aging and housing are reflected against generic but gendered domestic objects — a sewing machine, a mortar-and-pestle, and household talismans — which appear as affective conduits expressing independence, individuality, and vulnerability. These two research films tactically engage the minutiae of lived existence.

We need to fight for safe spaces where, as Donna Haraway puts it, we can “stay with the trouble.” Challenging orthodoxy may be more effective than tabulating empirical data when it comes to responding to crises in climate instability, inequality, and health. Sometimes, what we need is a radical change of perspective, and the freedom to think otherwise.

Lilian Chee


Access

Access to architecture education is too limited, and the most highly ranked programs are often those with the lowest acceptance rates.

I am not a practicing architect. I am an educator, who was trained as an architect. The only real agency I have in the built environment lies in the education of future architects and designers. And so, if I had to name one urgent issue, as this call has asked me to do, it would be access to higher education; or, more specifically, access to architecture programs. The relationship between a college education and upward mobility is well documented, and so it would make sense for universities to accept more students to support that upward mobility. This is not what happens, however. The most highly ranked universities in the U.S. are the most exclusive; indeed, exclusivity is a metric in the ranking. If we look to architecture departments, the same phenomena exist. Be it obstacles to entry based on GPA or portfolio; milestone evaluations that redirect or reject students after one or two years; or issues related to cost, technology, or location, barriers both implicit and explicit exist. Not surprisingly, the most highly ranked architecture programs are often those with the lowest acceptance rates.

In my first year at university, I was given, as many of us were, the introductory speech with instructions to look left and right and to consider that some of those around me might not be there at graduation. They were not. We went from being a first-year class of around 200 to a third-year class of 45. I went to a working-class technical institute with a relatively high acceptance rate. Even so, more than 150 students were rejected by the architecture program, even after being admitted to the institute. Many of my colleagues were first-generation students, and access to higher education was not a privilege that they took for granted. What if the dean, in an introduction to first-years, had asked us to look left and right and to commit to helping those students stay until they graduated? What if architecture programs were inclusive?

To be radically inclusive, we need to rethink how we enroll students, organize studios, schedule classes, use technology, and build the culture of our field.

To be radically inclusive means that we need to rethink how we enroll students, organize studios, schedule classes, use technology, and build the culture of our disciplines. This means being more intentional about peer-to-peer learning. Knowing that students can work from literally anywhere, we cannot assume that studio culture will simply emerge by default as it did when I was in school; once a byproduct of having to be in studio because that is where the drafting boards were, the culture of collaboration now needs to be intentionally designed by faculty — and designed at scale, to support inclusive and (one hopes) expanding enrollment. Consider, for example, a 300-person studio taught by a team of three faculty, in which online and hybrid models allow students to work in many places, but in which peer-to-peer learning is facilitated by grad-student TAs and fostered through highly coordinated small-group assignments across three modules. Through Canvas and Google docs, all the work is available to all students. Students are encouraged to resubmit work after it has been reviewed by peers and faculty to incorporate the feedback given. This helps to build a culture of collaboration rather than criticism. We are doing this at Arizona State University and, so far, it is working.

Yes, we need to heed the requirements of accreditation. And, yes, we must consider how to be inclusive and excellent. That said, there are many ways to understand what “excellence” is. Not everyone who graduates from an architecture program goes on to be an architect. (It would be great to have more politicians trained in architecture, for example.) If there is any silver lining to the past few years, it is that we now know we can teach differently than we were taught. Let’s make architecture more accessible. It’s urgent.

Marc Neveu


Buildings alone are inadequate tools for accomplishing design activism. Consequently, architecture is an inadequate professional framework for making meaningful impact on the scale and scope of systemic challenges raised by the Places prompt — climate emergency, structural racism, the shelter crisis, decarbonization … to name just a few. Architectural education, however, can be adequate to the task.

A key limitation of design activism has to do with the age at which students come to architecture.

Indeed, a key limitation on the discipline’s ability to meaningfully impact our built environments — both designed and not — has to do with the age at which students come to the subject, which in North America is typically at postsecondary or graduate level. Preparatory programs in high school, which are intended to draw more diverse students into architecture, are worthy endeavors as far as they go. However, such programs merely replicate the already problematic design studios offered in university departments (for instance, teaching enough orthographic projection that students can design a folly in the school courtyard). Adding an “A” (for Art or Architecture) to the increasing focus on STEM education in schools isn’t enough to change this. While important for a host of reasons, not least of which is the necessity to produce a society of humanists, STEAM won’t produce a society of humanitarians, which Oxford defines broadly as “people who seek to promote human welfare.”

Territory, "Conversation" project: "In 2015 Territory convened a team of 15 young people to design pop-up conversations spaces that could be carried on the Chicago Transit Authority to farmers markets and street fairs where neighbors could talk with young people about the future of Chicago."
Territory, Conversation project: “In 2015 Territory convened a team of 15 young people to design pop-up conversations spaces that could be carried on the Chicago Transit Authority to farmers markets and street fairs where neighbors could talk with young people about the future of Chicago.”

Mobile Makers, "City Makers" project, "a five-week workshop series where students research, draw, and build replicas of Chicago landmarks. At the end of the course, students place their models together to make a city."
Mobile Makers, City Makers project, “a five-week workshop series where students research, draw, and build replicas of Chicago landmarks. At the end of the course, students place their models together to make a city.”

The scale and scope of transformation we need to undertake — for instance, reversing the differential impacts of climate change on marginalized communities — require both a citizenry and a professional corps for whom designing a building is the end, not the beginning, of the process. We do not find this understanding in our schools today. By contrast, organizations like the Center for Urban Pedagogy in New York focus on civic engagement, understanding how design writ large, and the public policies under which design decisions must function, intersect with social justice issues. A young person engaged in CUP programming may find a path to architecture school … or landscape architecture, sustainability studies, environmental law, civil service, even politics. Other smaller scale programs work to build skills in reading the built environment alongside designing for it. Organizations like Mobile Makers in Chicago and Boston, and Territory, also in Chicago, come to mind. But such programs, including those sponsored by schools of architecture, are few and fragile. They require well-endowed universities, extensive volunteerism, and/or constant influxes of philanthropic money to make them work. Systemic change requires something more … system-wide.

I certainly do not want to replicate the racialized paternalism of textbooks such as Wacker’s Manual of the Plan of Chicago (1911) or Our City New York (1924). Yet it is important to acknowledge that these books tied the study of “Municipal Economy” directly to the architecture, infrastructure, urbanist decision-making, and public policies that formed this economy. Where is comparable education happening today?

Sharon Haar

Cite
Emanuel Admassu, Janette Kim, Danielle Rivera, Carla Jackson Bell, Neeraj Bhatia, Ana María León, Brent Sturlaugson, Lilian Chee, Marc Neveu, Sharon Haar, “Field Notes on Design Activism: 6,” Places Journal, November 2022. Accessed 01 Dec 2022. <>

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