Decoding for Equity

One of the many benefits of being a student in the Doctor of Design cohort at Harvard Graduate School of Design is the opportunity to submit proposals for conference funding–a competitive annual process–to highlight themes relevant to the DDes student researchers and support the mission of the GSD. This year, the award went to Aleksandra Jaeschke and Ghazal Jafari for Decoding, which offered a rich discourse of modern urbanization.

Decoding spoke to the broader concerns of unequal social relations, power, and decision making that are evident in GSD courses like Map the Gap and Cities by Design. Coding, or the means of prescribing social behavior and standardizing care in the construction of the built environment, is integral to urbanism and city making, and often inequality seems inevitable. At its foundation, the conference theme rightly associated social order and relationships with code; governments are code authorities, designers are code stewards, and the public become code abiders. Whether you agree with zoning laws, historic district boundaries, or prescribed building performance outcomes, the overarching laws that govern everyday use of buildings and infrastructure by the public inextricably influences the craft of architecture and allied design disciplines.

To me, decoding is a manner in which to revolt, depose, or challenge the normative meanings placed on land use and architectural style which determine where investments in infrastructure take place. Some practitioners assert codes block creativity in the design process. Some scholars claim that coding is a fundamental value structure that places design in contestation with social science. It is my position that in our time, what we build and whom we build for is beholden to systems operating beyond the realm of design, such as globalization and the pace of technological succession. The conference could not provide solutions to these complexities of city design; rather, it provided a platform for enabling the field of design to become more nimble in response to glaring social issues.

Overall, a spirited, daring, and prismatic conference panel comprising scholars and practitioners collectively stitched ethereal and practical realms occupied by geopolitics, planning, architecture, and social science. Keynote speaker Steven A. Moore (LF ’91 and professor of architecture and planning at University of Texas, Austin) warned of the inevitability of changing codes, and encouraged everyone to test the power held now by a select group tasked with generating code.

Morning session moderator Pierre Belanger (associate professor of landscape architecture and co-director of the MDes Postgraduate Design Research Program) set the tone with the theme of unsettling. He introduced social science and its influence on land use, supported by theories of Howard Becker (technology, coding, and the city), Susan Leigh Star (ethnography of infrastructure), and Manuel Castells (power in networks). Belanger raised the question of whether building codes guard health, safety, and welfare of the public, or if indeed the state writes code in support of its own authority. He also challenged Eurocentrism embedded in ideas of the Anthropocene–the era in which human activities revealed significant impacts on the Earth’s geology and ecology.He detached the notion of encoding from physical sites, focusing as well on soft infrastructure, like flows of information and behavior.

Afternoon moderator Carles Muro (architect, educator, design critic in architecture and urban design) posited the need for code in the realm of form and shape, fundamental principles that dictate conceptualization and construction of the built environment. He asserted that while accommodating the growth in our cities, we must demand quality even within the limitations of codes. I agree that any design professional worth his or her salt must practice and deftly communicate an enlightened craft while following the rules. Furthermore, Muro challenged cartography, planning, and the architecture of the city, referencing specific examples provided during the afternoon (San Diego, Los Angeles, Madrid). The afternoon discussion offered four pillars of "code-power": political, economic, financial, and informational.

Admittedly, before the conference, I had felt disdain for what I understood to be the code making process, marked by a power structure that determines the outcomes of place making. By the end, I learned coding is a language that controls social behavior to ensure social harmony, often at the expense of one social group in favor of another. The panel exposed me to myriad permutations of “code”: encoding, codifying, urban code, building code, and social codes that define “residents” and “aliens” in order to draw borders that permit access to some and deny it to others. With these nuances it is easier for the designer to explain to the layperson the complexities that underpin the design of cities.

Decoding involves taking charge of decisions about places for housing and livelihood in order to reclaim the rights to the city of entire disenfranchised cohorts of community members. Decoding cannot exist without addressing seemingly disparate yet interconnected theory and praxis. To communicate design, an expression of values is inevitable. Laws and obedience to these laws have a practical place and meaning in architecture and design. However, the designer’s voice must resound to challenge of social codes with a voice grounded in personal universal values. The designer must remain aware of the differing interests of the authority from the target user, the code maker from the code follower. Is a practice possible in which discussions about geopolitics, ecologies, landscape, and building systems occur throughout the design and building process? Since scale (from the size of a building to entire neighborhoods, and cities, and nations) is always at issue for code maker and citizen alike, designers must make themselves accountable to uphold the code–and challenge the code–as members of the public and stewards of the laws that affect the public.

Read more: Places Journal is currently running a series on inequality in American cities.

Photos by Julia Smachylo
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