A Creative, Political, Pedagogic ACT!

A Creative, Political, Pedagogic ACT!

While finishing the last semester of her MLA, blogger Azzura Cox reflected on recent highlights of the term (besides being named a 2016 National Olmsted Scholar), including the ambitious conference organized by Alejandro Echeverri, ACT! People Design Politics, Politics Design People. The following is Cox's final blog post.

Spring 2016 certainly saw its share of provocative conversations coursing through Gund Hall. From Senior Loeb Scholar David Harvey’s week of lectures on global capital to Assemble’s take on collective practice, discussions revolved around how design interacts with and shapes dynamics of power, politics, and place. In this fertile context, ACT! Symposium, organized by Loeb Fellow Alejandro Echeverri in collaboration with MDes students Pedro Aparicio, Namik Mackic, and Olga Semenovych, further pushed the conversation. Examining hybrid political design practice in three specific contexts--Medellin, Rio de Janeiro, and San Diego-Tijuana–ACT! gathered actors working in the dynamic space between design, policymaking, and the urban public imaginary. It also asked students, faculty, and practitioners to address how pedagogy can prepare designers to engage in such complex political realities.

Sergio Fajardo seems perfectly at home in that hybrid space. “I am a mathematician,” the former university professor boomed at the beginning of his talk. But Fajardo, currently governor of Antioquia and mayor of Medellin from 2003-2007, has also taken on the role of politician--a transformative one at that. Largely credited with turning Medellin from one of the most dangerous cities in the world to a case study of positive urban transformation, Fajardo emphasized the importance of engaging the public in building a new narrative for their city and their roles within it. “We didn’t have to hire a consultant,” he recalled about his grassroots campaign. Instead, the campaign engaged citizens on every level--sensory, emotional, and intellectual--to weave a story of dignity and hope. “What we’re doing there, in politics,” he said, “is designing the society we want to have.” His design approach is based on integration, and it manifests largely in public space. The Fajardo administration identified the poorest communities in the city and, through design, integrated them into the city’s narrative of rebirth. The interventions range from libraries and schools to health and technology centers to a bridge connecting two rival neighborhoods. They are all bold, state-of-the-art designs--in many ways, “monuments to the ability to change the world.”

Caroline Shannon and Pedro Henrique de Cristo, of Rio de Janeiro-based D+ Studio, similarly operate under the premise that design “can do more.” Their work, anchored around a public park in Rio’s Vidigal neighborhood, positions democracy as a spatial concept and asks how design can foster it. D+ Studio has been working with longtime community activists who, over many years, designed and built a park out of tires and debris, to leverage and expand the intervention as a core civic space. Future plans for the park, including a multifunctional staircase, autonomous water grid, and a school, speak to a key shift in scale: from park to architecture to urban design. In implementing, D+ Studio hopes to build a coalition of community members, experts, and investors engaged in reimagining the park, neighborhood, and city as nested elements of an integrated system.

Shifting scales--from a wall to neighboring cities to a watershed to a national border--live at the core of Teddy Cruz and Fonna Forman’s work in the San Diego-Tijuana area. They argue that the largest border region in the world is also a rich site of cultural and economic production, and that designers must insinuate themselves into that process of production. Cruz and Forman (a designer and political theorist, respectively) have developed a practice embedded in this specific environment, using informal ecological and social flows to “reimagine a more complicated idea of citizenship.” Through participatory mapping and data gathering processes, they reveal the shared norms, values, and practices that transcend the border.

"Many people are not aware of what their common interests are,” said Forman, “and that's where action pedagogy is important." Part of that pedagogy has been performative–for example, they curated a border crossing through a drain so that citizens could visualize the ecological crisis moving across the border–and part of it has directly engaged the built fabric of the border cities through a partnership with a rack factory that is now producing structures for incremental housing.

Cruz and Forman are also tackling a more traditional notion of pedagogy. They are shaking up the academic curriculum at the University of California San Diego, where they teach, by inviting community members to come in and share their expertise. As Cruz put it, the resulting dynamic exchange­–between students and practitioners, community members, and between the two cities themselves–is part of “rethinking the mission of the public university in the territory it occupies.”

The discussions that followed the ACT! lectures dealt with a provocative set of questions. In a complex urban context, what is the spectrum of sites for design intervention? How can interdisciplinarity become a deliberate modus operandi, rather than a necessary burden? How can process best mediate between the individual and the collective? What is the role of ethics?

And finally, what is the role of pedagogy? The remainder of the two-day symposium addressed the latter, engaging focus groups of GSD students as well as a panel of faculty. While some of the discussion focused on the structural limits of a graduate design education--including the duration of the semester, the rigor of studio-based education, and the emphasis on grappling with a variety of contexts rather than investing deeply in understanding one--students and faculty agreed that meaningful engagement with multiple, complex narratives and real communities provides fertile ground for designers.

Anita Berrizbeitia, chair of the Department of Landscape Architecture, proposed a renewed commitment to collaboration and action, rather than reinventing the wheel. “We’ve been talking about this for a long time,” she said, “so let’s use and build on that knowledge.” Diane Davis, chair of the Department of Planning and Urban Design, advocated enriching the research dimensions of the professional degrees so that students are more empowered to design and pursue their own briefs. When asked to comment, Dean Mohsen Mostafavi reminded the group that institutions are complicated. “Part of our research project is collapsing the space between thought and action,” he said, “but we also have limitations. Please don’t confuse us with an NGO.” While the pedagogical space itself may not readily lend itself to deeply embedded work, in restating the school’s mission­–“to train the most exemplary design leaders whose actions will transform the world"–Mostafavi certainly emphasized the unifying purpose for future generations of practitioners and, indeed, the future of the design disciplines.

Photo courtesy of US Army Sgt. 1st Class Gordon Hyde





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