In 1986, my peers and I began our first-year architecture studio with parallel straightedge bars and triangles in hand. We thought we were prepared for everything. Then we discovered that, though plenty of men’s rooms were adjacent to studio, no women’s rooms were in sight. The building had been completed in 1952, when the program didn’t have any women, so the architects did not include women’s rooms.

Liz York
Lauren Bishop/CDC Liz York

What did the female students do? We used the men’s room. We liberated the space. We refused to let the sign on the wall mandate a longer walk and implicitly discriminate against us. No one intended harm, none was taken, but we redesigned it, de facto, with our actions.

A lot of space has been used in a certain way for years that we as architects can liberate. Why are restrooms overwhelmingly identified as men’s or women’s? Thinking creatively, we could, as a starting point, name them short-visit and long-visit or Schroeder and Pig-Pen to indicate specific fixtures or neatness expectations.

Later, when I was diagnosed with cancer, architecture, of all things, helped me cope and connect. Situated feet away from strangers in the infusion room, as we waited for chemotherapy drips to make us well, we traded stories, shared hope, and offered support. Anyone could have pulled a curtain around their space, but no one ever did. Through architecture, we didn’t have to be alone. This was a welcome paradigm shift in health care design from the private exam room.

What other wounds can design heal? How can we frame or reframe design challenges in ways that facilitate meaningful solutions for today?

Meaningful architecture is created when design teams harness the power of diversity and inclusion. Design solutions are better when firms value differences in all aspects of life. We must go beyond what a person outwardly looks like to whom they are inside and their experiences in life. Inclusion is not a superficial exercise of getting the “right looking” team. It has to be a deep exercise that gives people license to engage, gain acceptance, and develop agency.

What other wounds can design heal? How can we frame or reframe design challenges in ways that facilitate meaningful solutions for today?

I’m often asked how I promote diversity in my office. On day one, each newly hired team member completes a personality inventory that identifies strengths and attitudes that permeate their thinking. Team members share their assessments, and together we discover the ways we approach work differently. Some people focus on creating icons while others are prone to customization, process development, or even the search for higher meaning. The value of bringing multiple perspectives to the table quickly becomes clear.

For example, when brainstorming shorter restroom lines during a design charrette, one team member, strong in empathy, suggested we widen stall doors to facilitate purses and luggage. Another team member, focusing on user efficiency, proposed that the doors swing outward to make it easier to exit the stalls. Someone with a cautious mindset imagined doors flying open and suggested lengthening stall dimensions instead to provide more room to maneuver. We could have designed the stalls the way we’ve always done it, and we would have gotten exactly what we always had.

We all have a role to play in equity. Design principals and team leaders with positional power must create safe environments and encourage open collaboration. They must build trust so that people allow themselves to be vulnerable, take risks, and speak up.

Within these safe environments, everyone, from recent graduates to seasoned designers, must use personal power to assert and speak truth. When teams are empowered to frame design problems in new ways, old wounds—including segregation, discrimination, and bias—can begin to be healed.

By acknowledging the challenges that different people face and liberating space for today’s paradigms, we strengthen architecture’s relevance and power to heal.

This article appeared in the October 2019 issue of ARCHITECT under the headline "Power Comes in Many Forms."

Editor's note: We regularly publish opinion columns that we think would be of service to our readers. The views and conclusions from these authors are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of The American Institute of Architects.

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