By Sarah Wilen and Eliza McLellan - 30th November, 2018
In the spirit of AIA President Guy Guyers’ 2018 presidential theme, the AIA Social Science and Architecture Committee hosted "Architects as Activists", which explored the role architects have in communities. The committee, which is co-chaired by Melissa Marsh and Evie Klein, also held three previous events in the 2018 series, including “Lighting with People in Mind”, a 2-part series on Workplace Design, and “Remix Resample Remaster: Identity and Making Architecture”.
Making Voices Heard
"Architects as Activists" featured four panelists: Jae Shin, Daphne Lundi, Cindy McLaughlin, and Andrea Merrett. Moderator Melissa Marsh opened the event with dialogue on the increasing need to understand each other and the hope to find balance between paying to work versus working to get paid in the professional realm. With a concluding thought, Marsh said that a goal of the session was to, “reconcile buildings and people.”
Though they came from different backgrounds and had different relationships to architecture, the panelists shared a common goal: giving a voice to those who are not often heard. Jae Shin, a designer and partner at Hector, opened with a pithy statement on the nature of architecture: "We’re in a ‘hectoring’ business." She explained that architects and designers persuade, negotiate, and even threaten. It is “place politics.” She spoke about Hector’s extended view of architecture in its approach to a community park project. Broad Hatter City, an initiative to bridge the gap between the community, the city, and architects, operates based on three pillars or stages: Make Policy Public, Produce the Public, and Build with Roots in Organized Communities. The firm did extensive research in community archives, worked with city government officials, and community members. Shin completed her presentation with a powerful quote: “Treat design as a shared meaning and value.”
Connecting People and Communities
Daphne Lundi, Vice Chair of the APA New York Metro Chapter Diversity Committee and member of BlackSpace, spoke of professional disobedience. "We’re professionals. We want to profess!" she exclaimed. Lundi urged the audience to instead create spaces that don’t exist and center voices that aren’t heard.
Despite New York’s diverse population, the city’s planners and architects lack proportionate representation of women and people of color. Lundi spoke about the efforts of the APA Diversity Committee to create road maps and guidelines for others, organize youth, and create new spaces. She touted the importance of helping youth understand how, and by whom, decisions about their communities are being made, in order to better equip them to take an active role in social matters.
Lundi then spoke about two efforts to do exactly that. The Hindsight Conference brings together people from a variety of backgrounds, ages, and races to discuss diversity and equity in planning. With 430 people, Lundi described the conference attendees as "people that just care about their neighborhoods." The intentions of BlackSpace are to better support work that’s already being done to improve diversity by bringing money, knowledge, and connections to bear. They also work to connect across generations. This year, BlackSpace organized a Harvest Festival with “Heritage Storytelling,” which gave elders in the community a chance to share knowledge and oral history. The initiative is guided by the ideas that activism happens at different scales and requires intentionality.
Equitability and Access
Cindy McLaughlin, CEO of Envelope, began her journey into the architecture world while getting her MBA at MIT’s Sloan School of Management. Envelope offers a tool to ease the process of zoning analysis. The intent is to level the playing field between smaller developers and corporate developers who already have the means to conduct complex zoning analyses. The effort grew out of a collaboration between Shop Architects and the director of MIT’s Civic Data Design Lab. As McLaughlin put it, "It’s a shame that there are regulations that regular people can’t understand."
Another panelist, Andrea Merrett, a PhD candidate in Women, Gender, Feminism, and American Architecture at Columbia University, echoed the idea of activism through equitability. Her work on Architexx’s traveling exhibition, "Now What?! Advocacy, Activism, and Allies in American Architecture since 1968," explores four main areas of activism: design, culture, and workplace; scholarship and pedagogy; representation and awards; and advocacy by design.
Merrett espoused the idea that architects can use their design skills to create a more equitable and sustainable environment. Through her work on both the exhibit and her PhD study of the history of feminism in American architecture, McLaughlin highlighted efforts to create change within the professions responsible for shaping the built environment.
We are all Students and Teachers
During the question and answer portion of the session, the audience heard panelists’ perspectives on provoking questions. Marsh asked, "What are the skills that enable us to be activists?" Andrea Merrett offered, “Listening.” Cindy McLaughlin advised, “Aligning incentives. Getting everyone walking in the same direction.” Jae Shin said, “Undoing what architecture school taught us. Learning the skill of how to talk to people.” Lastly, Daphne Lundi proposed, “Not putting your professional expertise above someone’s local expertise.”
This year’s presidential theme showcased the increasing participation of architects in a variety of political and social arenas, whether in community boards, planning committees, or their own neighborhoods. New or newly-bolstered ties between architectural and civic institutions have made way for practical activism in today’s world. The panel discussion reminded the audience to act on things that matter to them and to their neighbors, engaging consciously both in their community and at the office.