Visibling cities

calvinos-detroitYou’d think Calvino’s Marco Polo encountered 2015 Detroit in his strange travels. He would have told of a downtown overrun with ornate, unpeopled buildings and unhindered automobiles. A slender rail line weaves through the air among skyscrapers, along which a periodic train completes twenty-minute clockwise circuits; it’s called the People Mover but has no passengers. The city exists in the inescapable shadow of one man – it trades in his name, it grows and dies with his legacy, all distances are measured in his length: miles. Pedestrians are a novelty, if not a spectacle. The city gazes across the water to the automotive capital of another country. The city is simultaneously immense and sparse.

A sojourner, Calvino’s Polo only traces the broad strokes of sophisticated metropolitan murals. He leaves Detroit, and, unknowingly, it remains invisible to him.

In downtown’s Pleasant Valley neighborhood, the Carr Center has inhabited the 1895-built Harmonie Club for six years, dedicated to convening African American culture, art, and communities at one space – a first of its kind. While, in April, the Center hosted a couple hundred Public Interest Designers and Structures for Inclusion‘s 15th conference, the “post-industrial world order” sought by the curated projects and personalities may in fact have found perfect presentation in the building’s basement. There, COLORS – a restaurant, business incubator, and training ground – has sprouted into an economic asset for communities short on resources and an industry that struggles with employee advancement. Certainly, the conference-goers upstairs would like design to play an equally powerful community-fortifying role.

A member of the Chapters-formerly-affiliated-with-nonprofit Architecture for Humanity contingent, I can say that Detroit caught us off guard. Every place has the capacity to do this, depending on where you dig and how deep you go. Our most iconic cities are wholly and infinitely unfamiliar realms, united by one force: humanity. The fact that we don’t in many cases know the nuanced dynamics of these places does not stifle a generation of designers the impulse to introduce themselves, develop a professional service where none had existed, enhance local structural and social resilience, draw out and bring into being a place’s potential to serve and to celebrate. SFI convened top design thinkers and practitioners in this space, along with those aspiring for the resources and opportunities to make this work their own and accessible to their kindred.

A dozen AFH Chapter leaders met here to listen, to teach, and to explore how to actualize the potential of design and communities in the visible and invisible cities around us.

Cities and Memory: Detroit • Envisioning leadership
Thin Cities: Chicago • Envisioning education
Trading Cities: San Francisco & Portland
Envisioning universal impactContinuous Cities


Cities and Memory: Detroit

“Detroit is huge,” Alexander Derdelakos declares with arms spread wide a broad grin on his bearded face. Alex is introducing the attendees of Session 6A – Volunteering in Public Interest Design, to his vast hometown. The enclave of Brightmoor, for instance, is 15 miles west of the conference – and still in the city. Detroit can fit Manhattan, San Francisco, and Boston inside its boundaries (but also only have about a quarter the population). The need in Detroit for Public Interest Designers is equally gargantuan.

Alex is part of a three-person core AFHDetroit team that spawned in 2012. His portion of the Chapters presentation traces the steps of their development: the first year spent defining themselves and engaging small projects – community cleanups, house boarding, Park(ing) Day – and building a corps of volunteers. The following year brought the group into larger projects: Mount Elliott Makerspace, Brightmoor Artisans Cooperative. Finding projects was easy – the group approached churches and the City, canvased civic and nonprofit events, had conversations with friends, neighbors, and their professional network. The web of connections continually strengthened – a process reaffirmed in the collective memory of the Chapter Network time and again as soon as a city’s leadership congeals.

The Brightmoor cooperative started as a community garden that inspired the launch of dozens more. The original then bought a building, in response to needs among local food entrepreneurs for a commercial kitchen. AFHDetroit worked with the coop to develop an architectural program fit to train food entrepreneurs, prepare, package and distribute products, and provide a retail space (café). The final design approval has just been awarded. The kitchen will be completed and opened next year. Meanwhile, AFHDetroit is looking forward to their next big project.


Ivory agora

“Recognizing design projects with exceptional social, economic, and environmental impact, the SEED Awards represent the forces needed to create truly sustainable projects and positive change in the world.” Designers of products, places, and processes perform a rare task in doing well by all. SEED, like LEED, lends value to practices habitually disincentivized by a two-dimensional financial market. The 2015 SEED awardees each presented admirable accomplishments – but the most thrilling point of their contribution was the Q & A, and their input on augmenting OUR design practice to allows for more environmental and social equity.

This conversation was dominated by two voices: principal architect Scott Moore y Medina of Oklahoma-based Blue Star Studio (speaking on behalf of Keya Wakpala Green Development for the Rosebud Sioux Tribe), and the session moderator, Metropolis Magazine Editor-in-Chief Susan S. Szenasy.

Moore noted how, following an early-career client presentation, a listener commented: “you don’t talk like we do.” It was a great learning moment, Moore reflected, that public shaming. Designers cannot be anthropologists when it comes to their projects; those barriers must be torn down. “We stopped saying ‘the client needs this.’ We started saying ‘we need this.’ The clients become our friends, we have to put our ego aside and join them, not just represent them.”

Szenasy: But that’s not the world of architects! The recession humbled them, but they’re still prescriptive. Does a whole generation have to die out??

Moore equated this untenable design approach to that of his own mixed race. “My dad’s a white dude, my mom’s a brown lady – I can’t afford to pick camps. I have to bridge gaps. That’s what we are: synapses.”

Another point from Szenasy on connectivity, angling from her own experience. “Architects write in this turgid, horrible language. Stop it. Don’t do it – I’m not kidding!” Human beings tell stories, she explained. That’s what people want to hear about. “Not about the ‘aren’t we wonderful’ architects, but the people – how is architecture wonderful to them? We’ve been making the same mistakes for 20 years. That’s finally starting to change.”

On evaluation, Szenasy mused, “How does a piece of architecture succeed or fail? Judging and criticizing the work will take us to the next level…. We need real case studies of how collaborations work; none of us do it well.”

On the issue of resilience, Moore noted how Blue Star was lobbying HUD to expand the definition of natural disaster to include intergenerational oppression and trauma. The indigenous tribes has been living in a “150-year-long post-treaty tornado.” Resilience is the act of bringing back culture, language. He classified “sustainability” as a noun, a box to buy. “That’s cool,” he shrugged. The indigenous language is action-oriented. Sustaining is not good enough.

From the audience: This room is an oasis in a desert. Swing by 3rd and MLK. How do we overcome cynicism as a result of previous oppressive behavior?

Moore: Pray a lot. We do a lot of praying. A lot of songs in those prayers get you back to who you are. It may sound hokey, but if you find your song in your prayers, it’s what binds people together. You think the American Dream is going to the Super Bowl? Most of us aren’t going to get there, but we can believe in ourselves. Don’t give up – it’ll take a bit of time to get out of this mess.


Thin Cities: Chicago

“What if there was a place where we could build bridges, bring people together, and allow individuals in the community to connect with the best part of themselves?” the young narrator of Art on Sedgwick‘s campaign video asks.

In Old Town Chicago, affluent and impoverished communities coexist, but they do not interact. Architect Tom Veed characterizes the neighborhood as “very diverse and fractious.” Households earning $140,000/year are a block away from those earning $7,000. The children of these communities don’t even go to the same schools, notes Art on Sedgwick’s founder, Charlie Branda. An art center at the heart of the community could tear down these barriers. Veed and colleagues with AFHChicago cultivated parallel missions from workshops with two user groups: adults and children. The adults wanted a safe, inviting space that would “foster self-esteem and create a new identity for the community.” The kids hoped to learn pottery, glass blowing, music, and photography, and feel “comfortable, bright and relaxing.”

From these sessions, the designers developed a space program for the art center, including a large flex gallery, a large open studio, and a small studio dedicated to ceramics. Façade elements (of an existing building) are envisioned to link the studio spaces, and an opportunity to engage local sculptors and metal fabricators. The community is finishing a fundraising period for the project this Spring.


Listeners’ privilege

At the session dedicated to conversation with students (4A, how to activate a PID-oriented undergraduate education), a who’s-who of PID university luminaries shared the stage with current and recent students of Lawrence Tech – a commuter school in Detroit that President Dr. Virinder Moudgil described as “a private university but for public good.”

The professors urged a migration of architecture education’s focus from objects to objectives, or systems. Current degree offerings (two: design or technical) presented an incomplete picture of practice. A new emphasis – and different way of thinking – manifests as an “unpacking:” longer research periods, interacting with users. James Wheeler echoed a necessity for students engaging in this “messy part” of the profession: building relationships, which are not discrete things. Chris Harnish called this approach a critical exercise in humility. He encourages architecture explored not as artifact, but as narrative – and wouldn’t mind 13 weeks spent on research, followed by two weeks of design. Wheeler added that outreach should be conducted on the phone at worst – email being a “cushion.” “None of this should be easy – if it is you’re probably doing it wrong.”

The LTU students echoed these values, crediting classes that brought them to downtown Detroit to talk to people they didn’t normally talk to. “We were terrified at first,” Stephanie Kolpacke admitted, “but we gained a confidence in what the community really wanted.” The students also urged that curricula let them build their projects – narrow the focus to something tangible – “something you’re proud of.”

Professors and students alike wanted to develop skills in listening, not dictating. Yet, while academia may be the best place to transform the design profession – it would likely be the slowest institution to move. Making matters worse is an employment dilemma – could the University ecosystem pursue an education structure that would hurt job placement?

Maybe LTU is just the right kind of school to make the leap – small and private, with the luxury, ironically, to prioritize the general public as primary design beneficiaries.


Trading Cities: San Francisco and Portland

The American West Coast is united by the threat of spontaneous disaster, but – aside from survival kit marketing – are offered few opportunities to publicly organize against them. The City of San Francisco would readily admit a need for assistance coordinating communities and building a resilience infrastructure.

Recognizing this vulnerability, AFHSF’s Maria Williford leveraged an Architecture and the City festival to hosted a three-part event: an panel discussion between experts and city officials; a “build your own resilientville” workshop; and an exhibition of art and design depicting resilience. The sessions educated, engaged, and jumpstarted community members on neighborhood-specific disaster plans. Much of the impact lies in forging social connections; block parties become an essential element of disaster preparedness.

“The most profound preparation for disaster,” writes a San Francisco historian/activist, “must make a society…more flexible and improvisational, more egalitarian and less hierarchical, with more room for meaningful roles and contributions from all members with a sense of membership.” The combination of AFHSF’s events reflected these concepts from the community back onto itself.

News of the event rippled up the coast to Portland, where the local chapter cribbed the successful engagement model for their own communities. AFHPDX’s Rachel Baily presented “Made Resilient,” with a mission of “forging connections between citizen and city for an integrated network of strong, disaster-ready communities.” Their run of show moved from Government Agencies and Policy Makers to Private Sectors to a community design charrette and public art auction. Through the facilitated session, Portlanders made headway identifying neighborhood vulnerabilities, including the influence of food deserts and the precarious elderly community.

From the dialogue and repeatable, effective program, Community Resilience events are providing a forum and resources for very interested residents to develop neighborhood-specific disaster plans. Connections high and low are built. Momentum aligns among groups that have cast aside silos.


The indefinite oasis

Up on Ten Mile Road the campus of Lawrence Technology University arranged a collection buildings from every period of  architecture over 50 years – from stamped concrete to 90’s orthogonal, to LEED-approved curving curtain walls, to construction sites. The quad was an artifact of progressions in post-modern thought – all captured in architecture. The keynote was in an auditorium from the 60’s.

As the SEED head judge and Metropolis magazine editor-in-chief wheeling in the sky above the design world, Susan Szenasy had this chance to lace together work in the Public Interest. Her talk was satisfyingly broad, pinning anecdotes that were naturally fit for Metropolis magazine if not pulled directly from its pages, and infused with Szenasy’s candid social commentary – Via Verde affordable housing in South Bronx (“the developer, Jonathan Rose, knew how to finance this project, but he won’t be the only one”); MASS Design (citing cofounder Michael Murphy, “Sound building practices can and should lead to social justice”); a sort of Park(ing) Day garden project, but occupying part of a Swedish canal (“an intervention that could happen anywhere there’s an imagination”); a cohousing tower in Berlin (“We’ve been obsessed with the nuclear family for fifty years” / “The US can’t deal with Socialism”); a coffee table book on playgrounds around the world (Re: the Sierra Leonean river littered with broken glass, “How do we create a world that does not allow that to happen?”); Bêka & Lemoine’s films on maids cleaning starchitecture (“Why celebrate this? The CLEANERS can’t use it”); inclusive design (“Co-creation is already happening. Fight the top-down world – it doesn’t work!”) – and tying it together with the concept of editing the inclusive design practice (“Trash the superfluous, the repetitive, and the uninspiring…. Keep communication about architecture jargon-free, frame a story that appeals to everyone, and make an argument. Do those things and nobody can resist you.”).

“This movement,” Szenasy concluded, referring to the audience, “has to be identified as the way to do architecture.” And we were left feeling something missing – definition of what the movement actually IS – a sense of galvanization. There was a tinge that Metropolis would not bear the standard for this movement – look no farther than Szenasy’s mention of a foam modular project from MIT (for which I wondered in my notebook, “is she trolling us??”). Scott Moore, sitting towards the stage, challenged Szenasy to double down on performance storytelling – capturing more of architecture’s everyday users. Szenasy replied, “you obviously haven’t been reading a lot of Metropolis!” Moore: “In fact I have.”

He was expressing a frustration I think we all immediately felt – being left wanting for answers, and leadership.


Continuous Cities

The following morning, Atlanta, London, Bogotá, Dallas, Los Angeles, New York, New Orleans, Portland, San Francisco, Chicago, and Detroit gathered to carry forward a mission having lost their umbrella organization. An initial investment in their effort enabled them to meet and work together in person for the first time. On Saturday they listened to SFI, presented work ranging from community kitchens to viral resiliency workshops, and answered questions a out burnout, getting projects, and documenting impact. On Sunday they surrounded a table and discussed the future. As diverse as the AFH Chapters’ approaches are for delivering built designs for communities in need, their alignment and faith in one another would astound the session moderator. Doubtless, the years of independent experience and intimate familiarity with a gaping need for services – the reverberation of one humanity from every place, confirmed by practice gaps mentioned at the conference – had launched the Chapter Network in the same direction. The great question they face now is what shape the vehicle will take.

By day’s end they had a plan. Over six months, four subcommittees will focus on establishing autonomy: governance, development, external communications to promote progress, and internal communications to work with each city involved. This voluntary effort will be complemented by a transition coordinator – a paid position for oversight, outreach, research, and design of the organization this semi-formal network can become.

By Monday each representative had taken these intentions back home. A new thread runs around the world capable of accumulating such mass as to shift an industry, and let us see all the corners of this one place of ours.

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