Anne Chen
courtesy Anne Chen Anne Chen

Much of the built world that we have inherited reflects obsolete values. The vocabulary of the past is embedded with the symbols and imagery of a system that places dominance and power in the hands of the few. The nostalgic recreation of past styles, endorsed in the name of contextuality, legislated as Historic Design Guidelines, and executed through culturally shaped perceptions of visual harmony and profit-driven planning and development, perpetuates a homogeneity that encourages communities to value visual sameness over the richness of diversity. As a nation, we have grown accustomed to old, prejudicial systems that center a white, patriarchal, privileged ideology. It is past time to imagine our world through a different lens. As designers, we have to address longstanding inequities that are reinforced through the language of buildings. It is time for our work to speak to our values.

Our built environment communicates what we consider important. It sets an expectation and shapes behavior. The prominent placement of public spaces where people can gather suggests that communal relationships are important. Accessible and transparent entrances that minimize obstacles invite people in. Our built environment is richer when informed by designers with wide-ranging life experiences. Diverse communities are more welcoming of diversity. Architecture that intentionally expresses difference while supporting and shaping an experience that upholds community values can inspire a more inclusive worldview. First-generation American and then–college senior Maya Lin’s design proposal for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., ignited a fierce controversy. It was bitterly opposed by those whose expectations framed monuments and the image of war sacrifice in the more heroically traditional and representational manner, but now sets the standard for memorializing and honoring that sacrifice. Architecture alone can’t solve society’s problems, but out-of-the-box thinking can help disrupt a system that continues to celebrate sameness.

As a nation, we have grown accustomed to old, prejudicial systems that center a white, patriarchal, privileged ideology.

The Skid Row Housing Trust, in Los Angeles, commissions innovative architects who deliberately challenge formal conventions. Their efforts provide a compelling model for how inventive building language, coupled with thoughtful programming and services, can transform perceptions about housing for those experiencing homelessness. Quality buildings that express difference and reflect value offer a sharp contrast to the homogeneous image that typically accompanies planning principles such as New Urbanism.

So how do we disrupt convention?

We begin by diversifying the profession. Nurturing multicultural talent in architecture will require a sustained effort through early exposure, examination of barriers to entry, and mentoring. Programs that address these concerns, such as NOMA’s Project Pipeline, need funding and publicity to make a significant impact. Architecture programs must improve their retention of Black students along with students of Latino and Native American heritage, who currently withdraw at a disproportionately higher rate than white students. Hiring practices based on formulas that weigh where one went to school and interned—criteria that favor the wealthy—should be redefined to value the individual’s perspectives and interpretation of design in order to transform the status quo.

We reconsider the architectural curriculum to liberate history and theory from a canon that is primarily the work of Eurocentric white males. Extraordinary work must be amplified—like that from David Adjaye, Hon. FAIA, J. Max Bond Jr., Toyo Ito, Hon. FAIA, and Lina Bo Bardi, along with the work of lesser-known architects like French-American Anne Fougeron, FAIA, Minnette de Silva from Sri Lanka, and Andra Matin from Indonesia. Redefining the standard of study will enrich education and provide underrepresented students with role models currently absent from the pedagogy.

Alex Fradkin National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington, D.C.

We listen to traditionally marginalized voices. Inviting the perspectives of community members into the design conversation is essential. They are stakeholders regardless of whether they hold capital. The criteria for success for developers and clients can be limited and lead to formulaic outcomes. Centering the voices of community members ensures that development strategies will consider the people who will be affected by them and that development happens with them, not to them.

These steps are necessary to disrupt a design trajectory defined so exclusively by white male influence that it mutes other contributions. This will take the intentional, willful, and responsive leadership of those in power—the leaders of companies, colleges, and universities, and the designers who craft the environments that inform how we live and how we treat one another.

When architects uncritically borrow from past architectural language, our buildings broadcast satisfaction with the status quo. When cities cling to past architectural styles, they deny showcasing the imagination, creativity, and joy of today’s diverse cultural lifeblood. They signal a continuation of an unjust past that threatens to infect the future, denying power to the many and ceding it to the legacy of the few. Architecture, like civilization, evolves. As a society, we should be anything but satisfied. We should demand, support, and build the future.

The views and conclusions from this author are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine or of The American Institute of Architects.

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