"Urban Bonsai" garden proposal for bridging generational gaps in China.
Courtesy Lingxiao Shu and Qianyao Xu "Urban Bonsai" garden proposal for bridging generational gaps in China.

A student's first experience in an architecture office is typically a rude awakening. While their architecture school studios likely involved exerting some authorship over program and site selection, in today's professional practice, most—if not all—projects come with predetermined programs and locations. Furthermore, the recent graduate's role in a firm is often extremely limited. There is thus a significant disconnect between architectural education and practice: Academia gives students an outsized expectation of their influence over the built environment, whereas the profession exhibits a near-total embrace of externally generated projects.

Crowdfunding provides a model for bridging this divide. Increasingly, architects are turning to crowdfunding platforms to realize public projects of their own. Meanwhile, students can also employ the model hypothetically to explore a project's financial and operational realities beyond what is typically studied in the design studio. Notably, this entrepreneurial approach to architecture can contribute innovative ideas to the built environment by addressing significant social challenges.

Emily Hunt Turner
Emily Hunt Turner

A recent example is All Square, a crowdfunded restaurant in Minneapolis with a humanitarian mission. The 2016 Kickstarter proposal is the vision of Emily Hunt Turner, a civil rights attorney with an undergraduate degree in architecture. As a lawyer at the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Turner learned about the discouraging circumstances former prisoners face when attempting to reenter society. Although these individuals have served their sentences, it is nearly impossible for them to find jobs or housing afterwards—a failure that often requires them to return to prison after an established period, such as 30 days. All Square seeks to provide immediate employment for such individuals, in the form of staff positions at a gourmet grilled cheese restaurant, in addition to providing other resources such as mental health services. Turner's vision garnered $60,000 in funding—$10,000 more than her original $50,000 goal—and the restaurant is scheduled to open this fall.

I invited Turner to teach a one-week “catalyst” workshop this month at the University of Minnesota School of Architecture. Entitled “Activating Architecture: The Disruption of Difference,” her workshop, co-taught with HUD lawyer and colleague Roslynn Pedracine, drew from her Kickstarter experience and challenged students to “investigate architecture’s opportunity to reclaim authentic human exchange through the disruption of division,” per its syllabus. “By imagining spaces and places that bridge seemingly divergent communities … students will be given the opportunity to activate architecture anchored in collective purpose while dismissing the distance that accompanies difference.”

Students had five days to identify a pairing of two divergent communities, generate a proposal to bring them together in a positive way, and formulate a hypothetical Kickstarter campaign—complete with a name, logo, project description, images, and a short video. What would appear to be a tall order for 10 M.Arch students produced fascinating results:

Sam Busman and Sarah Gastler focused on the urban–rural divide that has come to play a fundamental role in U.S. politics. They identified the gas station and convenience store typology, which is evenly distributed throughout urban and rural areas, as an opportunity for redefinition. Rather than serve as an expedient locale for fossil fuels and junk food, Busman and Gastler reimagined the area a potential nexus for healthy food from nearby farms—a Community Supported Agriculture exchange with a café—as well as a purveyor of clean fuels. They titled their project “Convene”—a socially focused shift away from self-serving “convenience.”

"Convene" proposal
Courtesy Sam Busman and Sarah Gastler "Convene" proposal

Capitalizing on the popularity of the growing maker movement, Lucas McCann and Sara Powers proposed a fabrication space that would also address socioeconomic differences. “MakeAble” would bring people of varying financial statuses together in the creation of furniture and decorative objects. Low-income workers with building expertise could be paid to teach classes and use the facility to generate items for sale online. McCann and Powers identified a site along the Minnehaha Mile, a Minneapolis urban corridor of vintage and reuse shops, and talked with neighbor and local timber harvester Wood from the Hood about a possible collaboration.

"MakeAble" proposal
Courtesy Lucas McCann and Sara Powers "MakeAble" proposal

Lingxiao Shu and Qianyao Xu focused on the generational divide that exists in their home country of China. They argued that the divergent interests of Chinese millennials and seniors result in their populations being drawn to distinct locations—such as internet cafes and traditional gardens. In “Urban Bonsai,” Shu and Xu proposed a community park with appeal for multiple generations: a technology-infused landscape with Wi-Fi hotspots, power stations, and food carts coupled with elements of classical Chinese gardens. The project would be located in Chengdu on a vacant site near university campuses and elderly housing.

Other projects include Muna El-Taha and Kyrshanbor Hynniewta’s “One Roof” proposal for an interfaith religious center, Savannah Steele’s “BlueGreen” project to re-train illegal marijuana traffickers as participatory businesspeople in anticipation of the drug’s imminent legalization, and Zheyang Yuan’s “Visualizing Invisible People” system of color-changing light panels deployed throughout the city to communicate the prevailing mood of neighborhood inhabitants, and, in particular, reclusive, solitary individuals.

Architecturally speaking, these projects merely scratched the surface. The bulk of the effort consisted of identifying the target audiences, program, site, and argument—activities typically associated with the client rather than the architect. However, this is an important experience for budding designers. Having adopted the role of project-generator, the design student will likely be more understanding of client circumstances in the future—and have a deeper sense of reality than the standard project-generation process, which is typically more theoretical in nature. This approach also raises the possibility of collaborative authorship, whereby architects cooperate with clients and other stakeholders to mobilize capital for project ideas. (Recent high-profile examples of this include the Thames Deckway in London and the Amager Bakke Waste-to-Energy Plant in Copenhagen.)

The greatest contribution of “Activating Architecture,” however, is providing a space for students to focus on people, and particularly the widespread divisions that hinder the fulfillment of a healthy and just society. In practice, the typical architectural commission is devoid of such concerns. When conflicts arise, the tendency is to argue that a project should serve as a universal space for all—an admirable objective that is, at best, often superficially informed. Turner’s workshop demonstrates that architecture can play a more influential role in healing social divisions that some structures or developments might help sustain. The key is that these divisions must be at the forefront of project conceptualization. Although much more work would be required to launch an actual Kickstarter campaign, each scheme demonstrates a surprising degree of viability for such an abbreviated effort. Imagine what could be possible if both academia and practice made a serious commitment to this approach?