Design Pedagogy for a Just City

Design Pedagogy for a Just City

The sold-out Black in Design Conference, organized by the GSD African American Student Union, opened on Friday with a panel on how pedagogy could illuminate obscured, suppressed narratives and, as Brent Leggs noted the following day, “reconstruct a new identity within Black America.” Welcoming the audience, Dean Mohsen Mostafavi told of leading a similar conference, “De-naturalized Urbanity: The Landscapes of the American City from the Perspective of Race, Gender, and Ethnicity,” in 1993, yet that conversation is as pertinent and critical–if not more–as in previous years. Michael Hays offered a theoretical framework for subsequent conversations as he briefly discussed the “white spatial imaginary” posited by George Lipsitz in How Racism Takes Place: that white people are often blinded by their privilege and whiteness and not able to fully understand the “deeply embedded racial assumptions and imperatives” within urban sites. This sobering remark was further deconstructed by speakers Amber Wiley, Dan D’Oca, Diane Davis, Sonja Dümpelmann and Toni Griffin (LF ’98) as they presented their work.

Amber Wiley, assistant professor of American Studies at Skidmore College, told how her H. Allen Brooks Traveling Fellowship enabled her to conduct field research and use this training as a backbone to expound on colonial aspects of architecture. During her professorship at Tulane, Wiley’s students wrote and published online articles about the sound landscapes of New Orleans. They used theoretical frameworks, historical research and multimedia to uncover the shaping of certain iconic institutions in New Orleans, such as the Dew Drop Inn. And by partnering with the National Park Service and Tulane City Center, Wiley’s students were able to call attention to the preservation of musical hubs, such as A.L. Davis Park, Dew Drop Inn, and the Magnolia Projects. Wiley remarked that her course fulfills more than a couple of the National Architectural Accrediting Board’s Student Performance Criteria, yet it is challenging for her to validate her students’ work given that the “print material trumps digital humanities in scholarship.”

In Baltimore, a city in which residents of the lowest-income neighborhoods can have a life expectancy 20 years lower than the United States average, Daniel D’Oca (MUP ‘02 and GSD design critic) initiated the project Baltimore: Open City. D’Oca insisted that while his mostly Caucasian undergraduate students at  Maryland Institute College of Art had not openly inquired about social inequities in the area surrounding the college, they nevertheless rose to the challenge and produced astounding work. “Students have to be asked to think about these issues,” and when they are, the results don’t disappoint.

Diane Davis, chair of the GSD Urban Planning Department, affirmed the need for students to acquire critical thinking skills about the formation of the city. Family trips from St. Louis to Milwaukee were formative for Davis, who remembers passing the densely built and vertical landscape of Chicago. From then on, Davis’ intellectual curiosity for the urban form and the process of cultural production have been manifest in a deep scholarly dive into Latin American cities. With an almost militant call reminiscent of Che Guevara, Davis said, “We need a more instructive, and even combative, conversation on methodology to break down polarizations such as ‘process versus product’ and ‘social versus design.’ Let’s think sociologically about cities and how our skills can address these complex issues.”

One of the politically-conscious professors at the GSD is Sonja Dümpelmann, a self-described, “landscape historian interested in the politics of space.” Dümpelmann briefly introduced the audience to landscape architecture, a field founded in the 19th century with a “fuzzy history.” She described the need for more “inclusive and integrated landscape histories” to highlight the work of African-American men and women designers. Through a survey of aristocratic estates in the South and a children’s story, A Magnolia Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Dümpelmann brilliantly and swiftly illustrated how architectural history and literature can adeptly conceal structures of control and misrepresent people’s lives and work.

To measure justice and design impact, Toni Griffin, founding director of the J. Max Bond Center on Design for the Just City and professor of architecture at City College of New York, wants to develop indicators that define the “just city.” Griffin provided a useful and grave reference for these proposed indicators: “Less than 300 African-American women are licensed architects, and there are only 154 African-American faculty in architecture.” In a field where students of color can’t identify with practitioners, what does this mean for the profession? Griffin and her students begin by identifying what “justice” means, whether it is “distributive justice and refers to fairness or procedural justice and refers to fair play.” Or perhaps the justice we should demand is restorative, retributive or interactional? All these questions serve to help us refine the language we use to craft nuanced spatial paradigms.

The panel presentations eventually led to a work session hosted by AASU, Working GSD and Women in Design. Participants at each round table addressed one of the scales covered by the conference: Body, Building, Neighborhood, City, Region, and Globe. Be sure to tune into Open Letters Edition 32 tomorrow, which will consolidate and synthesize the audience’s responses into a manifesto for design accountability and responsibility.

Learn more about the Black in Design Conference.

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