In 1968, a year marked by unrest, civil rights leader Whitney Young famously addressed the AIA in Portland, Ore., condemning architects for their “thunderous silence” and “complete irrelevance” in responding to the country’s social and political issues. Young urged architects to have the courage to use their professional training to address the inequities and injustices Americans faced at the time.
Many designers who are pursuing public interest work would have made Young proud, including designers Bryan Lee, Jr., Assoc. AIA, Imani Day, Assoc. AIA, S. Surface, Assoc. AIA, and Melissa Frost. Building on their architectural training, all four are crafting careers to address the most pressing needs of their communities through design.
Bryan Lee, Jr.
Lee is an architectural designer who has shaped his career around helping others understand architecture’s role in “creating racial and cultural equity in space,” as he said in his talk at TEDxTU, through an impressive array of programs, initiatives, and interdisciplinary partnerships.
After receiving his M.Arch in 2008, bleak employment prospects opened Lee to pursuing an alternative career in design. He founded an architectural multimedia studio while becoming more deeply involved in the National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA). He soon became the organization’s national exhibition coordinator and founded Project Pipeline, a program designed to help students of color “understand social justice through the lens of design.” This ethos also informs Blights Out, a collaborative initiative he leads with artists, activists, and designers in New Orleans that fosters an inclusive and empowering narrative around inner-city blight in the city’s Sixth Ward. For Lee, this work addresses the fact that “the definition of an architect is so narrow that it excludes a lot of the most valuable work required of us.”
Lee recently launched the online Design Justice Platform to organize design professionals to dismantle “the privilege and power structures that use the design profession to maintain systems of injustice,” he said at a SxSW Eco presentation in October. The website is an opportunity for designers to share “mini manifestos” on the role of design justice in their work. On Inauguration Day for the presidency, Design Justice coordinated “Design As Protest Cyphers,” workshops occurring in 11 cities nationwide to address the role of design professionals in response to the new administration. Ultimately, “the goal is to combine the language of activism and the language of design to create a more just built environment,” Lee said. "That will require speaking out against prohibitive local and national policies that will have disproportionate impact on marginalized communities.”
Imani Day joined Gensler’s Detroit office in 2015 at the height of the Detroit Public Schools (DPS) crisis, which drew attention to the “appalling conditions” of many of the school buildings. Inspired by one of her first projects in the city, the renovation of the Detroit Achievement Academy, she realized the far-reaching impact of the failing structures. “Students can’t fully flourish, learn, or focus if they have to wear their coats all day because there’s no heat, or they’re inhaling mold, or the lights may not come on,” Day says. Though renovating the Detroit public schools is a highly politicized issue in the city, she is in the early stages of planning a non-profit, conceptualized as Design DPS, to make it possible.
While Gensler already works in public schools with local chapters of the nonprofits Fate and City Year, these partnerships only focus on one room or space at a time. Day wants Design DPS to “truly revamp” schools in a holistic way and lead the design community to respond more aggressively to this widespread problem. For Day, “Design DPS would be focused on researching the most pressing problems and generating actionable solutions, finding out who to can help.” But she is also emphatic that “school buildings should reflect the vibrant cultures of their students” and that renovations present an opportunity for the profession to reach the next generation of designers: “it seems like such a simple formula to address such a tough, complex reality.”
While Day has begun researching partnerships with other architects, contractors, and nonprofits in Detroit to get the effort off the ground, she is still in the early stages of her career, pursuing licensure. "I often come up with new ideas for my career, but this is the most practical, necessary, and obtainable of them so far,” she says. “Stepping out to do it will be scary, but necessary.”
Melissa Frost and S. Surface
On Dec. 2, 2016, in Oakland, Calif., a warehouse fire claimed the lives of 36 people attending a party in an illegally repurposed live/work space venue. The fire incited a national conversation on the enforcement of building codes and left architects and designers wondering how they could help prevent a similar tragedy. Two designers, Melissa Frost and S. Surface, have organized initiatives where architectural expertise and do-it-yourself (DIY) communities can find common ground in the name of safety.
Saferspac.es and the Harm Reduction for DIY Venues are collaborative online resources to “channel disciplinary and specialized knowledge to vulnerable communities,” Frost says. Saferspac.es is an information hub to connect professionals offering legal, building, or project assistance with anyone in need of resources or information to ensure the safety of their spaces. In the DIY spirit, Harm Reduction for DIY Venues is a Google Doc that offers a plain-language overview of the building and fire codes, providing simple steps venue owners can take to make their spaces safer. The document is constantly reviewed by licensed architects, but Surface also monitors the architects’ contributions to make sure they are not “too professionalized, too obscure for the general audience.”
The warehouse fire was particularly frightening for similarly precarious communities nationwide when several cities began sudden crackdowns on code non-compliant venues. Surface sees “a desperate need for the ability to translate between bureaucratic bodies and the DIY community to help change the rules” for communities that lack the means to achieve full compliancy. Surface is involved in the Seattle Arts Commission’s efforts to make the local building code more artist-friendly.
Frost and Surface have been inundated with emails by building professionals offering to help “bridge the gap between the fire code and the arts community.” Frost sees signs that the gap is closing: “in DIY communities, awareness of personal safety was never considered in terms of buildings. Now it is widely accepted.”
This article has been updated since publication. S. Surface is an associate AIA member.