Anton Grassl/Esto

To explore the role of justice and social advocacy in architecture and placemaking, ARCHITECT contributor Terri Peters interviewed Bryan C. Lee Jr., the New Orleans–based design principal of Colloqate Design and a co-organizer of the national platform Design as Protest. Colloqate was recently named the 2021 National Design Award winner in the emerging designer category by the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, in New York.

Peters: How do you compare design justice to the conventional notion of building design?

Bryan Lee Jr.
John Ludlam Bryan Lee Jr.

Lee: Design justice is a foundational principle; it is not a design process, yet. It is an underlying framework for how to think about getting to the architecture. The principal argument of design justice is that we are creating spaces of racial, social, and cultural justice through the process and outcomes of design.

Complementing that notion is that design justice seeks to challenge the privilege and power structures that use architecture as a tool of oppression. It is people- and justice-focused. It seeks to create radical visions for what living in space with one another means. In the next five to 10 years, we’ll start to see the aesthetic correlation between design justice and what we call colloquial architecture—just like you saw the change in the aesthetics of place as a byproduct of the environmental movement 20 to 30 years ago.

How can the profession become more equitable?

The design profession changes when those who presently control the capital change the demands on designers so that it’s no longer purely about capital return on investment, but a social and justice-based return on investment. So, are we doing work that materially changes the lives of the community members when we introduce our buildings into these places?

Fundamentally, where you’re seeing the biggest changes is in institutional frameworks or at institutions that are beholden to a constituency: public schools, colleges, and libraries in progressive spaces. They’re all putting out requests for proposals that are either ticking toward equity frameworks or pushing it further into critical race theory and design-justice frameworks. The outputs of design justice are not only to repair for past injustices of the physical environment, but to make them fair in the present and remove barriers for the future.

And then, if we want to push design justice one more step forward, it requires us to affirmatively influence the future outcomes of those who have been marginalized by not only our architecture but also previous architectures and frameworks that have fundamentally harmed people.

How do you see the role of racism and race as influencing contemporary architecture?

Contemporary architecture is seeded in white supremacy, and white supremacy is entirely a racialized consideration. To dismantle capitalist white supremacist mindsets within the framework of architecture is to restructure the profession in its entirety. Race and culture are two different things. Race is a framework that was set up to specifically marginalize certain individuals based on their perceived color. Culture is the consequence of the sense of circumstance and immediate conditions that is fundamentally about our collective hope for what a future might look like together. Culture is the defining of patterns, habits, routines, and tendencies. What better way to understand those things than to reconcile them with the physical spaces that people create?

Culture is nothing other than our ability to handle the traumas that are forced upon us through racialized, sexualized, and derived systems. It is our ability to cope with those things—and that’s what drives the space to form the aesthetic of the architecture that we want to see. Right now, what we see is architecture that has responded to Western hegemonic tendencies and pedagogies. Culture is the defining architectural driver.

The outputs of design justice are not only to repair for past injustices of the physical environment, but to make them fair in the present and remove barriers for the future.

How will we know when we have achieved equality for all in the built environment?

As a nonprofit, Colloqate tries to choose clients who will become partners. We are less viewed as tools of a client and more as partners in a set of actions, which gives us more liability and responsibility. But the client also has the opportunity to reduce their overall decision-making in the process—or to redistribute it to the communities that are going to be served in the space.

Ultimately, we move forward by making sure that people who act with malice and violence in the physical environment don’t get to keep building things when they cause harm. Architects need to call out such clients so that they don’t control every aspect of the physical environment.

There are clients, like institutions or people that have an obligation to a large set of constituents, that are enthusiastic about making sure different voices are structurally implemented into design in real, functional, and strategic ways.

Will that require ongoing consultation and reflection with occupants as our buildings, clients, or client needs change over time?

We prioritize the needs and wants of communities over the needs of clients. That is a prerequisite of our entering into a contract. You have to be willing to serve your community above all other things. To do that, you have to acknowledge that a pre-design organizing engagement happens prior to the standard scope of project services, and continuing post-occupancy studies are necessary.

The beginning phase is establishing the buy-in, the investment, and the connection to the community. What better way is there to build community than to have people invested in the spaces that are coming into those neighborhoods? We ask to be a part of community conversations and engagements early on. We hire community members to be a part of the design team to help those conversations move forward. Fundamentally, we try to assure that the follow-through happens through spatial applications into the design process, the standard scope of services, and then construction.

Ultimately, we move forward by making sure that people who act with malice and violence in the physical environment don’t get to keep building things when they cause harm.

For architects wanting to do projects that support change, what kind of architecture would actively dismantle barriers and make buildings more equitable?

When we talk about design justice, a random person will sometimes comment online, “Architecture can’t change anything, so you all should focus on other things.” Or “architecture is not significant enough to do that.” But then I remind people that 40% of the carbon emissions that exist in this world are a byproduct of buildings. And [two-thirds of the global population] are expected to live in urban environments [by 2050].

If we have that much additional square footage going up, then we’re going to continue to be one of the biggest contributors to climate change. And the impact will hit Black and brown people hardest.

It is also a racial justice issue. From the 1970s to around 2010, [the number of people imprisoned increased by approximately 700%]. That means that we’re building more prisons to lock more people up. You can’t tell me that’s not an architectural issue. You can’t say that because we have housing policies that reduce density, spread people out, and bifurcate communities. There are houses that get developed and designed to harm the consistency and continuity of communities. You can’t tell me that’s not an architectural issue.

For nearly every injustice in this world, there’s an architecture, a plan, a design that has been built to sustain it. Our job is to suss that out, and that means challenging systems that create the same sets of output.

For nearly every injustice in this world, there’s an architecture, a plan, a design that has been built to sustain it.

We can measure parameters like carbon emissions and environmental impact. It’s harder to measure the impact of design decisions or equitable initiatives. Is it important to measure design justice like we do for other performance aspects?

It is 1,000% important to measure it. It is necessary to understand the qualitative metrics of place that define people’s relationship with place as it exists and as it might exist in the future. Carbon is easy to measure now, but that’s only because people put a lot of effort into understanding how to measure carbon. We have done none of that when it comes to understanding race and people—literally none of that. We always throw our hands up and say, “Well, it is just too hard to measure this.”

But people are not that complicated. Our patterns are similar. Biased systems—that’s sexism, racism, religious bias, gender bias, ableness bias—are forced upon intersectional communities on a daily basis. We have to adjust our lives. We have to adjust how we make decisions. And that can be tracked and talked through with communities and start a larger database of understanding about how people move in place.

The reason that people [are comfortable measuring] carbon is because it doesn’t have a personality. It’s easier for people to dismiss the human quality or the human nature of design, which is the most crucial. And that’s the most juicy stuff. It tells so many stories, and it can tell us about the longevity of a building just based on how people care for that building.

An abridged version of this Q+A appeared in the September 2021 issue of ARCHITECT alongside Terri Peters's story "What Makes Architecture Excellent? Prioritizing People, Place, and Purpose."