When hired last year to teach a studio at the Illinois Institute of Technology focused on the Green New Deal climate proposal, I prepared to address how architects, landscape architects, and other design professionals might participate in fundamentally rebuilding the world. Focused on three of Chicago’s most polluted and vulnerable neighborhoods—Altgeld Gardens, McKinley Park, and the Southeast Side, my class required students to research historical and contemporary bureaucratic failure. Using that research, they would envision new systems, networks, social fabrics—and, the physical structures that would flourish under these systems—that would align with the Green New Deal’s goal of environmental justice and net-zero emissions. The course ethos was aligned with the writer and civil rights activist Audre Lorde’s famous quote, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”; rather than asking my students to use existing bureaucratic structures to solve built environment injustices like cancer-causing pollution, I asked them to design new government departments and policies that would provide jobs, perform remediation, and create justice. While my students excelled in research, I struggled to help them imagine and visualize a new world order: Some students told me they had never been asked to imagine new ways of living and working, that political structures felt distant from their design educations. Since then, I’ve decided that, more than ever, design education needs an injection of radical imagination—a tool I’ve come to embrace as a means to visualize a more just world.
The ethos behind radical imagination is to imagine the world’s structures and systems not as they are, but as they should be to produce social and environmental justice. A term utilized by various activists throughout decolonization and social movements, including the American Civil Rights movement, ‘radical’ refers to radic-, the Latin word for root —that is, imagining a better future requires understanding the roots of the issues we are trying to solve.
The book Speculative Everything: Design, Fiction, and Social Dreaming (MIT Press, 2013), has helped me grapple with teaching imagination. According to an accompanying diagram by futurist Stuart Candy, preferable scenarios are: first, grounded in the probable; second, take into account what is plausible; and third, encompassed by what is possible. The radical imagination in architecture, then, relies on understanding what political, social, and economic systems exist (through research), and asks students to foresee what would probably be built within those systems—two very typical steps in design education. In order to create a preferable future, however, students must imagine new systems and coalitions that could possibly bring about that preferable future.
Kofi Boone, professor in the Department of Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, focuses his courses on issues of equity and justice, but, he said, “[students] are very rarely asked to envision what an equitable society even looks or feels like.” In teaching classes about environmental and racial justice, Boone has found that, “breaking out of the constraints of a problem-based way of exploring things is probably a key part to creativity.”
The design-problem method provides students with clear learning outcomes essential to mastering tools and measurable curricular goals, but the solution ends with the building envelope. Asking students to design an affordable housing development, for example, doesn’t require them to fundamentally understand the root causes of housing instability. Janette Kim teaches a class called Home Economics as an associate professor at the California College of the Arts in San Francisco—a class designed to reimagine housing, labor, and resource use. She has found that teaching imaginative skills requires teaching students how to conduct interviews and build relationships with communities, conduct deep research, and provide reflexive activities that lead to “aesthetic and experiential imagination,” Kim says.
Rather than beginning with a design problem in her class, Kim “sets up a series of research topics that are pretty simple: how you pay the bills, how you take care of kids, how you take care of elders,” she says. “We immediately then do these playful, sectional perspective drawings that are supposed to represent not design proposals but exaggerate conditions that you've found in your research.”
This exaggeration exercise, which Kim calls a “surrealist” approach, doesn’t present a design problem. Instead, it solidifies students’ imaginations as drawings that are integral to proposing new, co-operative or non-normative economies of living. They learn the rules, then they break them. “Those are the technical skills of understanding economic relationships that I think are very different from what architects normally learn,” Kim says.
For William Fleming, Wilks Family director of the Ian L. McHarg Center for Urbanism and Ecology at the University of Pennsylvania Stuart Weitzman School of Design in Philadelphia, and the Diana Balmori visiting professor of Landscape Architecture at Yale University, learning radical imagination can happen in the classroom, but is discouraged by the greater educational institutions. “My frustration with design education is that [institutions] think they're addressing political, institutional, social, and economic problems, but really, they're trying to solve them with formal interventions,” Fleming says. “In schools of architecture, the view of the world is that architecture is an engine of societal transformation, as opposed to a manifestation of existing power relations.”
Fleming’s Green New Deal courses, instead, introduce students to interdisciplinary organizers, scholars, and practitioners to unravel this view—even bringing these voices into student reviews—demonstrating that imagining a better world cannot be done by technological or formalistic interventions alone. Those visitors help students build familiarity with the power structures that cause or reproduce longstanding harm.
In his classes, Boone and his students work with frontline communities who are organizing for environmental justice, emphasizing such an interdisciplinary future. Similar to Kim’s methodology, imagination yields a creative thinking process that moves beyond design and instead teaches students about how to build coalitions within communities. “Most of our students in academic spaces know nothing about coalition building, about how to partner with communities, so I know students benefited from that kind of work,” he says.
Radical imagination is crucial to dismantling “architecture” as a service and expanding it into a holistic, collaborative, and political practice. It starts by cultivating those research skills, embracing ideas and solutions outside of conventional formal structures (physical buildings, as well as legal, political, and economic structures), and encouraging professionals to consider how their profession has supported or benefited from entrenched, harmful systems. Introducing radical imagination in education could fundamentally change the field.
“Because of the complexity of problems we're facing, you find creative ways not within your profession, but between professions," Boone says. "Rather than mastering a broad array of skills, you get depth, and then you find people with equal depth, and you build relationships and coalitions." This, he continues, might spur students to leave the architecture and design professions—not entirely, but to build a new field that relies on more collaboration. In many ways, then, imagination becomes a method for reinvention—for the profession to become more open, transparent, and collaborative, but also to transform the world itself.
The views and conclusions from this author are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine or of The American Institute of Architects.
Read more from Anjulie Rao: Can the rust belt become the housing belt? | On unionizing as pedagogy. | Prioritizing carework in design—rather than tech innovations or green metrics—will lay foundations for more sustainable communities.