Bryan C. Lee on Design Justice and Architecture’s Role in Systemic Racism
In the rage, furor, and sorrow that followed the murder of George Floyd, one voice in the architecture community managed to put the nation’s centuries-overdue reckoning with race into the larger context of the built environment. Earlier this month, CityLab published architect Bryan C. Lee Jr.’s essay “America’s Cities Were Designed to Oppress,” an impassioned polemic on design and race that also had the great virtue of offering up specific solutions.
Lee is the founder and design principal of Colloqate, a New Orleans–based design and public advocacy firm that was named an Emerging Voice in 2019 by the Architectural League of New York. Colloqate led the Paper Monuments project in 2017, a public art and public history campaign that was launched in conjunction with the successful fight to remove the Confederate statues in New Orleans. In addition to its advocacy work, the firm is currently working on architectural projects in Portland, Toronto, and New Orleans. Last week I talked with Lee about his essay, the charged moment that we’re in, and where the nation goes from here.
MCP: Martin C. Pedersen
BCL : Bryan C. Lee, Jr.
The first and obvious question is: What’s different about this moment? It certainly feels different. But we’ve had police killings before, and yet a whole movement didn’t seem to arise out of them, certainly not to the extent that it is now.
I would challenge that. Every movement has been a byproduct of black bodies being murdered. We saw Emmett Till be the spark to the civil rights movement. We saw the beating of Rodney King, and then folks who started organizing after that. We saw Mike Brown in St. Louis, six years ago, spark off the Black Lives Matters movement. For nearly every fight, every movement, we see black bodies often dropped before the protest, and then subsequently an escalation in force by the police.
But what I do think is different about this moment is the combinatorial consideration of not just George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, Ahmaud Arbery, and of so many other people without any accountability for so long; on top of that, we have Covid, which feeds on public health insecurities that are defined by the built environment. A substantial number of medical doctors and nurses are now defining racism as a public health crisis. That’s a shift. And I think when we’re talking about this moment, we have to consider not just the murder of black people by way of acute police force, but by way of ingrained systems that have for so long primed us to be the first harmed.
That brings us to the design element of this, something you’ve been working on your whole career. Explain the concept of Design Justice. Your practice uses those principles and looks at problems through that lense.
The way we define it is: Design as a pursuit for racial, social, and cultural justice through the process and outcomes of design. It’s not just about the visual, the end result of the design; it’s about the process of how we get to the design. That’s the generative component of it. The secondary component is that we’re challenging the privilege and power structures that use architecture, planning, design, interiors, as a means to perpetuate injustice, perpetuate oppression, in the built environment. So Design Justice frames around those two concepts of challenging systems and visioning spaces, with communities, that provide positive outcomes for them.
What I liked about the CityLab piece, besides its polemic nature, was it offered up solutions, and they were very concrete: a list of specific steps. One read: “Stop using area mean income or AMI to determine affordability in our communities. Instead route the distribution of state and federal resources in a measure that reflects the extraction, the durational wealth from black communities.” Explain that one to me.
We always talk about wealth inequities. We talk about the wealth gap. There’s this prevailing understanding that black and white wealth is expanding, specifically as it relates to property. From 1937 to 1983, we saw that expansion go from 1-3, in terms of black-white wealth, to 1-13. The gap has expanded since then. And so what we’re saying is that instead of basing our state and federal policies in the present income of folks, we have to root it in the generational wealth patterns of communities over time, because that’s where we start to define where that systemic extraction has occurred.
It’s not the fact that black people make 70 cents on the dollar. It’s the fact that white families have $125,000, on average, to their name, while black families have less than $7,000—and are on track to be at zero in the next decade. We’re rooting our calculations in people’s present income and not accounting for the fact that that extraction has happened through the built environment for the last hundred years. We’re underestimating a substantial part of what that oppression looks like.
What’s the role of design now? It’s a field that struggles with diversity issues. It thinks of itself as enlightened and progressive—and compared to, say, investment banking, it might be. But at the same time, we are where we are.
I think the profession’s role is to reconcile our complicit nature in all of the various systems at play. We talk about the fact that for nearly every injustice, there’s an architecture that has been designed to sustain it. Look at our climate crisis: 40% of the world’s carbon emissions come from buildings. When we talk about policing and jailing: We have built out an immense prison system. By doing so, we’ve forced a system of mass incarceration upon it. So we have to stop designing and constructing buildings that directly and actively create harm in the world.
It means that we have to imagine communities that are not centered solely on whiteness as our prevailing understanding of how people move through the world. We often base our considerations of space and place on how white people might feel in that space. For example: the idea of a picket fence and two children and having your own domain as the owner of a single lot. That ideal is much different than those found in communities of color, who often live together, who often prefer to have communal spaces, communal interactions. We need to recognize and acknowledge the way that design and architecture perpetuates that disconnect, and instead build with other considerations in mind, both amplifying the health, wealth and educational outcomes, directly related to those underserved communities.
I understand that on the design side, but how about on the policy side? It seems like a lot of the systemic things you’re talking about are ultimately political issues.
They’re both. We talk about the continuum of power, where designers can have impact on that continuum. It includes pedagogy, policies, procedures, practice, projects, and people. Those are the ones that we consider most pressing. And what that means is, the way we teach people is important to fix and change. We have to change our universities. We have to look at our high schools and how we’re training people to think about the physical environment, whether they’re architects or not. We have to actively change policies, whether it’s HUD or city councils or planning offices, to reflect programming that can allow for justice to emerge.
We have to change the way our procedures work. Oftentimes we set in place these policies that have theoretically good intentions, but the people who implement them either don’t know how to, or have varying levels of understanding of what the policy was attempting to do in the first place. Red lining, the way it was written, did not specifically call out black people. It called out “undesirables.” So there’s a difference between policy and the way that those things are implemented.
And then we go to the receiver side and talk about practice. How does practice change from an internal standpoint? How do we extend the range of services to adamantly include the community process as a part of the entire scope of work? In our projects, how do we test and make sure in the long run that the projects are accomplishing what they were supposed to do? And then, lastly, how are we expanding, not just the profession, but the number and variety of individuals that have a say in how the built environment is created? Because we’ve done such a woefully poor job of addressing those issues throughout our history, all of them need to be addressed.
Designers often complain that they’re handcuffed in their ability to tackle systemic issues, unless they have political backing, a friendly mayor, city councilperson, commissioner. How do you get around that impediment on the execution side?
I think that’s a critical consideration, but there are a lot of policy makers, specifically in communities that have been historically harmed by these policies, who are primed and ready and willing. They’ve seen, as Whitney M. Young once said to a gathering of architects, “the thunderous silence from our profession.” They’re ready to listen and learn how we can think about creating better spaces with the communities we serve, but we have done almost no work in addressing that. We’ve had plenty of treatises on what to do, but we’ve almost done no work in implementation.
They either don’t know how to do it, or they’re not interested.
There is also a time crunch on the design side. Those six things I pointed out also include banking, within procedure and policy. When a developer is trying to get the return on investment and flip a property, the amortization rate on the project becomes important. Those kinds of considerations are all centered on the value extraction of the land, the property, and the people. Those things can be changed. There are a lot of community banks that want to be able to lend, but have standard practices that continue to constrain how they operate. They put a time limit on our phasing. They put a time limit on our execution. We tend to make design decisions within a three month timeframe. For most of our projects, even the big ones, we stay in schematic design for a short period of time. But that’s the most flexible time, when communities can have the most input on the outcome. And if they’re not there, if we don’t do that community programming and planning, during early concept design and schematic design, then their input will be relegated to the periphery of the project.
What kind of input does the community give you?
We frame a lot of our community outreach or community organizing in what we call ground setting and baselining. It’s two things: the socio-cultural parameters of a place, and then the geographic perimeter. So we ask: what are the sociocultural conditions of a neighborhood, of a city, that are valuable, that are value-adds? Not in the administration’s eyes, not in the designers’ eyes, but in the community’s eyes. What’s a valuable set of experiences and spaces that they identify with? And then ultimately we try to move into baselining, which is geographic perimeters. What are the boundaries of this physical place that make its current condition either easy or adverse. What are the physical challenges? What are the geographic boundaries that either provide or prevent access? Then we do a baselining, which takes a running narrative history of place and roots that in the project site, and from there we’re actively looking for the experiences and the collective narrative of the communities that we are serving. That narrative will tell us what they value, what we see as necessary for them to continue to grow, and how they might amplify the use of whatever new development might come into their community.
How do you reconcile input from the community, with input from a client, a patron, government, who might have slightly different goals, and might be funding it?
Early on, our general mode of operating is to make clear that we are doing ground setting to serve the community. It is less about what the client fully wants and more about how we can be of service to this place. For us these are generally programmatic elements that are non negotiable. Usually we’re looking for projects that clearly define a want and a will to implement critical race theory and design justice practices into their RFP process. That is a huge consideration.
Any closing thoughts? What are you feeling at this moment?
I’m just tired. Tired that we have to do this every year. Tired that we have to fight to consider justice the most valuable part of what we are supposed to do as designers. But I can also say that I feel hopeful that there is a turning of the corner. I see the young people with a bigger intelligence around this stuff. I commend a lot of the young architects, the young students, who are really diving into it. This is a moment that’s here to stay.
All images courtesy of Colloqate.