In collaboration with Kate Spade New York’s On Purpose program, nonprofit General Architecture Collaborative (GAC) designed a workspace for the Abahizi Dushyigikirane Cooperative in Rwanda.
GAC In collaboration with Kate Spade New York’s On Purpose program, nonprofit General Architecture Collaborative (GAC) designed a workspace for the Abahizi Dushyigikirane Cooperative in Rwanda.

In July, when New York magazine asked 25 local notables how the post-pandemic city can be more “livable, prosperous, and just,” nearly all of the respondents specified a new law, policy, or initiative that New York City should enact or explore, ranging from free subway rides four days a week, to establishing a basic income for artists, to banning private cars from Manhattan. The point of the roundup was that the promise of correcting systemic injustice—whether environmental, racial, or social—must be a function of the system itself. While our society’s enforcement of laws may be in the name of justice, the laws themselves may not always represent just aims.

Justice advocates in architecture pursue a range of solutions under the banners of environmental, racial, or social justice to identify their particular fight, but all of them are united in their reproach of the systems that support injustice.

Architecture, broadly conceived, is a big world with power centers that determine its shape and the career prospects of those who work within it. But when you consider that its interconnectedness can make those power centers accountable to each other, that big world starts to look a little smaller. When the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture released a statement on racial injustice in June 2020, it joined other collateral organizations in committing to a comprehensive review of “policies, programs, and procedural norms.” More importantly, ACSA committed to a reckoning within the system of architectural training and practice—a system that, at worst, has weaponized design against the disenfranchised and, at best, has neutralized design to be a passive agent of privilege. “We understand,” the statement says, “that architectural education has for too long accepted white privilege as the norm, limiting diverse voices and marginalizing the discipline’s impact on society.”

In 2020, ACSA’s Director of Research and Information, Kendall Nicholson, Assoc. AIA, launched “Where Are My People,” a series that explores diversity and representation within architecture based on data about those who identify as Black; Latinx and Hispanic; Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander; Native and Indigenous; and Middle Eastern and North African. It’s the first time, he says, that such data have been collected in a focused way.

By being more granular in establishing the names and numbers associated with these groups, Nicholson’s project does two jobs when it comes to establishing a baseline of racial diversity within architecture: self-identification and statistical representation. Unifying thematic terms like “design justice” or “racial justice” also have two jobs, he says: They must coalesce people around a goal, and they must help those goal seekers see the systemic and historical reality of the problem.

“When you say you want to increase the number of Black Americans in architecture schools, that’s about representation. You can’t claim that as a goal unless you understand the underlying root cause that jeopardizes it,” he says. “In this case, one of the root causes of their absence is that Black men are disproportionately incarcerated in the United States.”

Equity Is Fine, but Persistent Equality Is Better

The term equity is often used interchangeably with “fairness” to refer to the principle that two or more things are held in balance. The term equality refers to the real circumstance when two or more things are balanced, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a Baltimore-based charitable organization that advocates for children. In this rubric, for instance, pay equity is the principle that two people doing identical work (or who are identically titled) will receive the same compensation. Pay equality is when that’s actually happening in an architecture firm’s accounting ledgers. Racial equality is when the systems that govern our relationships as workers and our advancement as individuals—like education, infrastructure, or criminal justice—are structured to treat everyone the same regardless of race. Racial equity, then, is when everyone is fairly and equitably treated—which may mean adding benefits for certain groups to address historic inequities.

Looking back 60 years, however, Civil Rights leaders marched behind banners for equality rather than equity, the latter of which has historically been associated with finance rather than social justice. In his 1968 AIA Convention speech, Whitney Young spoke about equality, not equity, as the great paradox of the architectural profession. The 19th Amendment, passed in 1919, is something we celebrate on “Women’s Equality Day,” which has been recognized on August 26 since 1973, not “Women’s Equity Day,” which might be mistaken for a celebration of shareholders. Still, equity has ascended in the parlance of architecture’s justice quest. If terms like equity and equality have two jobs, as ACSA’s Nicholson points out, then the evolution of how we use these terms suggests a third job for justice advocates: being persistent in uprooting the problem.

Anthony Schuman says these jobs don’t represent a crisis of imagination but the burden of actualization that makes design justice, environmental justice, or equity difficult for architects to define.

“Take housing,” says Schuman, professor of architecture at the Hillier College of Architecture and Design at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. “The Housing Act of 1949 established as a goal a decent home and suitable living environment. Year after year they didn’t meet the goal. Why? Because housing wasn’t considered a right. Housing as a right has never been federal policy.”

Schuman has long advocated for what he calls “architecture’s social vocation,” as a co-founder of The Architects’ Resistance in 1969 as an M.Arch. student at Columbia University, as past chair of the New York City chapter of Architects/Designers/ Planners for Social Responsibility, and as past president of ACSA. He says that the vocabulary of architecture’s social vocation isn’t as important as what it fundamentally points to, and the built evidence of architecture as a vocation isn’t as compelling as what it can do to improve people’s everyday lives. Writing in 1991 at the peak of Deconstructivism, Schuman said that design’s objective should be the “good society,” not the “perfect” building.

“Architecture is the framework of existence that society creates for itself, according to Anatole Kopp, and we know what architecture looks like, but what does justice look like?” he asks. “That’s why we have to define it through a series of smaller lenses based on a series of real actions.”

The buildings that compose the Masoro Health Center in Rwanda house curative services, administrative functions, preventative care, and maternity services.
GAC The buildings that compose the Masoro Health Center in Rwanda house curative services, administrative functions, preventative care, and maternity services.

Making Justice Accountable and Actionable

The textbook definition of justice is the administration of laws, and laws reflect what we, as a society, have decided is right, wrong, and enforceable. Justice and law are often conflated in conversation, which is understandable since justice is (in an ideal world) enshrined by laws, and when laws are enforced, we often say justice is served. It’s also understandable to conflate them because each has always existed for the benefit of the other.

If advocates seek justice as the administration of laws, then there is an inherent flaw in lawmaking. This flaw raises two possibilities: that justice is unassailable, but as a society, we’re sometimes bad at making laws, or that laws are fallible because justice is imperfectly administered. Yet, both of these possibilities are unacceptable. On one hand, being bad at making laws is putatively reckless and, on the other hand, passively blaming an imperfect administrative system is lazy.

There is a third possibility: that our laws are fallible because our concept of justice is unattainable. If we can translate justice into everyday terms like representation, fairness, or the reallocation of resources, rather than as an administrative framework, then it might improve the systems constructed by laws. The concepts “design justice,” “environmental justice,” and equity pose an agenda for architecture that seems to unite individuals in practice and the academy and, for some architecture firms, define their business strategies, too.

Leighton Beaman is an associate professor of practice at Cornell University’s College of Human Ecology. In 2008, he founded General Architecture Collaborative (GAC) with Yukata Sho and James Setzler, which began as a for-profit architecture firm that they converted, in 2011, to a nonprofit. To date, GAC has completed eight projects in Masoro, Rwanda, and other towns outside of Kigali, including a sports center, a health center, a community center that doubles as a housing prototype, a workshop for local artisans, and a playground. In 2021, Architect’s Newspaper named the firm the Small Firm of the Year.

“Instead of doing a little pro bono work on the side, we wondered if we could reverse it and make it the main focus of the firm. We started by asking how we can work for people who are always overlooked, who aren’t part of any discussion, and who need the most help,” says Beaman, who noted that the practicality of splitting time between two countries and operating as a nonprofit is still a work in progress, but something they’ve successfully managed for a decade now.

Setzler manages projects on-site in Kigali working with two architecture school graduates from The School of Architecture and Built Environment at the University of Rwanda (now operating out of a new building designed by Patrick Schweitzer & Associés). Beaman and the other partners including Sho, an associate professor of architecture at Syracuse University, and Zaneta Hong, an assistant professor in landscape architecture at Cornell University, split their time between teaching and GAC.

“It’s not a coincidence that we all work and teach at the same time, which allows us to earn money and live,” he says, “but it also allows us to be more selective and pursue environmental- and design-justice ends in the work we do.”

Through grants and fundraising, GAC obtains the capital for projects, serving as designer and owner. The project is completed by local workers under the supervision of GAC, which then turns over ownership and management to Rwandan entities. Even if GAC is registered as a nonprofit in the United States, its principals still have all the same challenges as in a for-profit firm, from the mundane, like wrangling InDesign layers, to the profound, like being nimble about staffing to respond to an unpredictable workflow or the Rwandan political climate. But, as a nonprofit, GAC has the benefit of being able to allocate funds on-site in ways that directly benefit workers, such as healthcare or on-the-job training. It’s the kind of accountability that justice, in its best possible version, represents. Still, Beaman resists defining terms like design justice, environmental justice, and equity in part because they’re inseparable and in part because they’re too laconic.

“I teach a course on sustainability and the first lesson is that it’s not a thing. Sustainability is a practice. Equity is like that, too,” he says. “Equity is a practice that you do, and you do again, and you learn from, and you keep doing it. So, all these terms come down to an act of doing rather than a handbook or glossary. It doesn’t mean I don’t care about the space or form or materials. That interest coexists with equity for me.”