Observations | Design as Protest
This year, we have seen millions across the world advocating for social justice more prominently than ever. As Americans who have been inundated by the recent election, we continue to become hyperaware of our ability to advocate for what we believe. From nationwide marches to trending media posts to virtual speaking events, we have seen how the different ways to protest can become catalysts for positive change. As designers, we must ask ourselves how can we protest injustices and advocate for the social good in the context of our profession? Let’s explore the ways we as designers can move past the public statement or press release by spreading important messages through the work we do.
Be selective of the work you accept:
The work we choose to accept or not accept can speak volumes about our values and beliefs. Consider the specific types of projects to pursue, the clients to support, the stakeholders to engage, and the regional location of a project: do their values and expectations match yours? We must be aware of the immediate and long-term impact our work has or will have on not only the end users but also the surrounding communities and in the socio-economic and cultural context.
For instance, selecting work to service the educational, health, food and housing needs of an underserved community can have a positive impact on the people and its economy. The idea of “socializing architecture” is a strategy of the BaSiC Initiative, a collaboration of faculty and students from Portland State University and University of Texas at Austin, School of Architecture who aim to help communities with the process of building civic and economic resilience. By choosing to do community-based work and employing a participatory approach, community members can aid designers throughout the entire design and construction process, so people can have their voices heard and are invested in the process of building up their community and shaping its identity through design. At Bailey Edward, we practice socializing architecture by choosing to work with mission-driven clients. To promote the idea that healthcare should be accessible to all, we go after projects like Family Christian Health Center. To ensure higher education is accessible, we have designed community college spaces such as the Malcolm X West Side Learning Center.
Rejecting work, especially if multiple firms collaborate to do so, can be just as impactful as new construction. For example, if designers decide to protest the new construction of prisons with the current systems in place, this act of refusal could be a catalyst for reforming the current systems. By opting only to design rehabilitation spaces rather than new penitentiaries, designers can have a positive impact on our justice system. In recent news, AIA New York architects have noticeably taken a strong stance against designing jails and prisons that are “unjust, cruel, or harmful spaces of incarceration” in hopes of serving the widespread movement of transforming our justice system to shift towards work based on prison reform and restorative justice. Therefore, before you select what work to accept, ask yourself what the implications of the work are and what the potential impact on the affected community and its economic growth is.
Be a champion of the historical and cultural context of the place:
While being selective of the work you accept is one of the ways designers can protest, designers must also be sensitive to the history and culture of the place and its people. Where there is failure in acknowledging the historical or cultural significance of a place or groups of people, we have the power through design to bring recognition to pieces of history and culture that are forgotten or ignored. A notable piece of architecture that acknowledges the history of slavery is the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Alabama designed by MASS Design Group through the Equal Justice Initiative. In this sacred space consisting of 800 six-foot monuments that represent thousands of lynching victims, we are forced to confront the truth about our history of racial injustice and reflect on the mass atrocities and abuse. Public commemoration can play a momentous part in instigating community-wide reconciliation and healing. As designers, we must advocate to make the invisible visible.
We must also preserve the historically and culturally significant places that are existing as well. Through historic preservation efforts we must advocate to protect the existing pieces and structures that exhibit the cultural growth and evolution of our society, region and nation at large. Historic preservation is a conversation with our past about our future and is vital in understanding the roots of our communities and its people. In doing so we can increase understanding of heritage conservation as a social justice imperative. More recently, Bailey Edward has designed a plan for the old Gary Church ruins in Gary, Indiana. Rather than demolish the ruins of the old church that had once been a community gathering space, the Gary Church Ruins will become vibrant gardens where neighbors can meet to enjoy each other’s company or performances.
Be inclusive of all people:
As we strive to be a champion of the historical and cultural context of a place, designers should also be creating an inclusive environment for all people. This starts with the development of local, state and federal regulations such as the Americans Disability Act, AIA’s Guides for Equitable Practice and universal design guidelines. Throughout the design process we should keep in mind not to be biased or stereotyping when designing spaces for people. We should be designing with the intention that the built environment is to be inclusive and accessible to all people. For instance, the needs of elderly people and children are often forgotten, but the idea of intergenerational community building can bring all age groups together to address issues that affect people at all stages of life. This is evident in the Surry Hills Library and Community Center by FJMT Architects in Australia which was developed through active engagement with the local community to establish a place for people of all ages, income and cultural backgrounds. The focus on maximizing open space, transparency and sustainability helps create a place open and usable for all in the community to share and access information and resources.Teetertotter Wall by RAEL
As designers, we must take social responsibility to better the lives of all people in both practice and beyond. We must recognize the immense knowledge and abilities that we each hold can help make a positive impact on people’s lives and our environment. Design is a social process in which both designers and communities can work together to create cohesion and solidarity and to advocate for the important issues. It is through this opportunity to advocate and engage in bigger issues together that we can see a real catalytic change happen. Ask yourself, as a designer, how we can be better and do better for the social good?
Lastly, a message to all our friends - As the U.S. Election Day passes, remember your power to advocate for change doesn’t end at the polls. Advocacy continues in our day-to-day decisions and we can raise awareness on critical issues by speaking through the work we do (or don’t).
Lauren Garriott is a designer working out of Bailey Edward's Champaign Office. Her passions lie in the intersections of health, well-being and design. She strives to incorporate these values into affordable housing, public housing, and humanitarian architecture. Lauren is a member of NOMA and received her Master of Architecture from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign