Who are the authors of our urban spaces? How does the culture of private property shape the design and aesthetic attributes of cities? In a traditional architecture education, these questions are often an epilogue, or even an aside, to multi-year training in form, aesthetics, and canon. But what if we flipped this order?
This past summer our studio, Office of Collaborative Design (OFF-CODE), had a unique opportunity to ask these essential questions to high school students taking introductory classes in architecture. We developed and programmed an intensive four-week workshop, It Takes a Village, with local nonprofit Digital Ready and the Boston Society of Architecture (BSA). Convening in the BSA gallery, the program focused on introducing young adults of color to careers in architecture, engineering, and construction, first through their own conceptions of what makes a home and a city.
Organizations offering apprentice design training are abundant in Boston. But despite seeming availability, the barriers to racial representation in design here are severe. Our students were in no position to afford to study at the expense of wage-earning time. “If I weren’t here, I’d be working at CVS,” said Trish, one of the most enthusiastic students. The median net worth in Boston for non-immigrant African-American households in 2015 was evaluated to be $8. Cash stipends are one of the ways that apprentice programs make post-secondary study possible for students, but wages are just one of the many challenges they face. Digital Ready provided food stipends and, for some students, dorm housing through partnerships with local campuses that shuttered over the pandemic.
The root challenges students face in entering into design education mirrors the highly exclusive process of creating spaces and buildings in America, which actively segregate and economically stratify our cities. In the design professions, less than 2% of licensed architects identify as Black, and less than 3% identify as Latin. Of the many necessary reforms, our studio focused on confronting the exclusivity of design professions by revealing the ways cities are designed, planned, and constructed beyond conventional (approved, official) architectural and planning practice. In this way, we grounded design in relatable ways and encouraged our students to work collaboratively toward a shared goal, contributing their lived experience and their intuition as wellsprings of design creativity.
In the first week, students conveyed personal narratives of family barbecues, street parties, outdoor festivals, and games as some of the memories that made their neighborhoods alive, animated, and distinctly their own. “The smell in the room is always changing, depending on what my grandparents are making,” Thao said. “Whenever I’m in these rooms, I feel comfort, since it’s always loud and full of life. It’s small, but we don’t need a lot of space to have fun. The advantage of being in a small space is it brings us closer together.”
In the second week, students were provided a common table on which to build their shared model of an ideal city. Arranging doll-house sized furniture, the students’ personal narratives began filling the studio with dozens of tiny colorful rooms. Tutors instructed them in both analog and digital methods of model making and 3D printing, enabling the design ideas to come alive. This creation was framed through the reading of two texts: bell hooks’ Mapping Cultural Genealogy of Resistance and Delores Hayden’s What Would a Non-Sexist City Be Like? Speculations on Housing, Urban Design and Human Work. Each asks readers to conceive of the politics of spatial design or the merits of shared communal spaces. These critical readings—often assigned to graduate-level students—proved to be accessible and inspiring to our teenage students, and corresponded to their personal experiences with racism.
Coming out of a pandemic school year, we knew the students were burned out by virtual instruction. So we had to be strategic with our curriculum to reduce the abstraction and increase the sense of excitement, confidence, and accomplishment through hands-on making. At the outset, the students, ranging in ages from 14 to 23, had different levels of personal interest in design (including little or none). And yet they are in some ways initiative designers already. This age group is highly aware of appearance, aesthetics, and the “design” of one’s own personal identity (to say nothing of the intense consideration of personal expression on social media). They’re also intimately aware of the ways their city nurtures or hinders their growth as adults.
We encouraged the students to engage in collaboration, critical reading, and collective discussions to develop their understanding of the city and how urban and architectural space is divided and distributed in our society. We took outings to visit the Basquait and the Hip-Hop Generation exhibition at MFA and facilitated group discussion with the progressive stack method, ensuring every student felt they could be heard. Students learned from daily series of professional speakers, some of whom were enormously influential role models, including Wandy Pascoal, design fellow in residence at the Mayor’s Housing Innovation Lab and the Boston Society of Architects, and Loeb Fellow ’19 Jeana Dunlop, urbanist and strategic facilitator, whose works each seek and facilitate inclusive change in the built environment. “Honestly, Jeana Dunlop is one of the most amazing women I have ever met,” Zaria said.
The studio culminated with a hands-on creation of a pop-up installation, built in collaboration with YouthBuild Boston, a longstanding nonprofit that provides youth apprentice training to enter construction trades. Students were invited to work alongside student carpenters their own age to learn basic skills in carpentry, site surveying, and teamwork. Working together for a few days, one of our students, who was reluctant at the outset of the summer, found himself inspired by the work and, at the end of the class, enrolled in the apprenticeship program. The pop-up features an immersive display of the students personal memories of home, the focus of the workshop that began as an individual journey and culminated in a collective creation. It’s a simple structure of wood poles, carefully cut and assembled into a framework supporting the student work adorning a flowing textile set, in the silhouette of a house.
During the final review, the room was packed with students and visiting professionals, all circling around the city model. In conversation, students spoke about their personal struggles with exclusion and feelings of pressure in an increasingly expensive city. “Boston is rebuilding itself,” Zenobia said, “but it’s in a way that I feel a lot of our voices are not heard, or are not contributing to the new building of Boston. Our model is very different from the way Boston is being built and changing.”
Citing hookes and Hayden, students revealed fundamental failings of their city. “My neighborhood only offers two-bedroom units,” Trish said. “If we wanted three-bedrooms, we would have to leave our neighborhood.” In response to audience questions about their visions for Boston, students talked about ideas of a compassionate and inclusive city, with an abundance of public space and shared amenities, and above all affordable housing. “One thing I see a lot of is homelessness” Madisyn said. “It’s a big issue, and it’s frustrating, because Boston says it’s all about being inclusive, but no one is doing anything to help these people get off the street.” Many students shared the stress they’ve personally felt as their city changed. “I can’t go to a lot of places I used to enjoy,” Madisyn said. “Gentrification happened to me a couple of months ago: I had to move to a new place because we were kicked out by new tenants. This is a huge problem, especially during a pandemic.”
Ending on a more optimistic note, many students felt emboldened by what the workshop had revealed to them about the issue of spatial injustice. “I never really thought about architecture until I came here,” Jason said. “We need more places we can go and find what we want to get out of life. That should be a change for the future of Boston.” For more than a few students, pathways into design, urban planning, construction, and activism seemed for the first time necessary and attainable.
As faculty, we had to reflect deeply on how design education had shaped us, not only through the emphasis on formalism, Eurocentrism, and machismo, but by its conspicuous avoidance of the political and racial dimensions of space. Today, in order to reach the level of discussion on spatial injustice broached during our final review, designers must first slog through many levels of abstraction and years of training. Is there an unacknowledged intention in our design education that insulates students from these broader political implications of design? It Takes a Village was intentionally conceived as a collective endeavor in design improvisation focused directly on the real-world issues of spatial politics.
We contend that a design education aiming to be more relevant and inclusive must reconceive the agenda of design. The immediate approach should be twofold: First, programs should reveal the array of professional opportunities in spatial design practices for students to explore—from architecture and trades to planning and activism—rather than elevating a single role. Second, we must demystify the mechanisms of spatial inequalities by equipping students with an awareness and understanding how form, economics, and policy coalesce into the urban realities they witness and endure. This way design education can become a design tool for change, grounded in reality and resonating with students, especially those who lack the privilege to enjoy design as a folly, but instead endure it as an enormous determinant of their health, wealth, and quality of life.
Featured image: The final model for the It Takes a Village workshop. All photos courtesy of Office of Collaborative Design.