Radical Practice in Design

International Women's Day with Women in Design

On Tuesday, March 8, Women in Design convened the third annual celebration of International Women’s Day at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. WiD has been active at the GSD for 10 years and has recently caused reverberations beyond Gund Hall with projects like the Pritzker Equality petition, which sought equal recognition for architect Denise Scott Brown next to her partner Robert Venturi. Like its previous work, WiD’s Tuesday events skillfully managed to celebrate the accomplishments of female and other under-represented designers while keeping sight of the work that still needs to be done. This tone was reflected not only in the day’s events, but also in the language WiD used to discuss the history and work of International Women’s Day:

“Reflecting on strides the design fields have made toward achieving gender equity and this year’s UN theme “Step It Up for Gender Equality,” International Women’s Day can be a catalytic platform to investigate how radical practice can re-situate—and revolutionize—our work. Originally called “International Working Women’s Day” the earliest observance of Women’s Day was held on February 28, 1909, in New York; organized by the Socialist Party of America in remembrance of the 1908 strike of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union. Today, Women in Design continues this work towards equity across representation, compensation, and valuation for women as well as other underrepresented groups in the design disciplines.”

The day began with a community workshop on entrepreneurship, followed by a beautiful reception in LOEB library, where GSD faculty, fellows, and visitors were invited to share their thoughts on the current state of women in design. Throughout the afternoon, WiD encouraged participation from the GSD community with a photo booth that recorded participants’ definitions of feminism, radical practice, equity and self care. The night ended with a refreshingly diverse panel of inspiring women, representing a broad array of design practices.

Following an introduction by WiD co-chair Sarah Bolivar and treasurer Ashley Thompson, Susan Surface started off the night with a presentation on her work as a public curator. Taking the audience through a repertoire of initiatives united by the principles of open source replication, human centered design and deference to the multiple intersecting identities of their participants, Surface touched on the accomplishments of Lady-Fest, Architecture for Humanity and LA Open-Acres, among others. Ending with her work as program director of Design in Public, Surface introduced an idea that would become an important theme throughout the night: “designers do not design for communities; they are a part of the community.”

Next, Diana Al-Hadid, a Syrian-born New York-based sculptor, discussed her path from sculpting immersive spaces with paper plates to manipulating wood, paint and plaster. The evolution of her work led to complex installations that challenged formalism and architecture by questioning the permanence of our bodies and the structures around them. She revealed images of busts melting into their pedestals and walls dissolving into paint drips, breaking down not only perceived structural barriers, but also boundaries between natural and built form.

Julia King took a no-nonsense approach to discussing the decaying boundaries of what can be defined as architecture and critiquing the lack of progress towards equity in the profession. She started with a reminder that although women make up 50 percent of architecture students, they constitute only 18 percent of licensed architects. King went on to discuss her innovative work supplying improved sanitation to low income and isolated communities in India. She returned to the importance of participatory design practice that Surface first introduced, declaring that architecture is uniquely positioned to move beyond pure form and get “tangled up” in the laws and policies of everyday life. She argued that a wider recognition of this fact will empower more architects to take on the socio-political and cultural roles of lobbyist, advocate, and designer.

Finally, Atyia Martin presented her work as chief resilience officer for the city of Boston and its 100 Resilient Cities initiative and underscored the necessity to incorporate social justice in any responsible campaign for resilience. She led the audience through a series of definitions to expand our understanding of social equity and resilience. With urban resilience, she emphasized the inability to separate the effects of shocks–emergencies and natural disasters–from those of stresses, which include slow violence like chronic racism, unemployment or disinvestment. She insisted on the difference between equity and equality: the latter is not sufficient given a long history of social inequity or institutionalized racism. Finally, she explained the concept of responsible resilience, meaning that one cannot responsibly discuss environment or infrastructure outside the context of people. These definitions form the framework for her powerful approach to Boston’s Resilient Cities initiative, based on community stakeholder engagement, racial equity, and social cohesion. Addressing the comparatively radical approach of her work, Martin ended with some sobering, yet hopeful words: “It’s disappointing that we need radical practice to get people back to humanity. Nonetheless, promising work is happening.”

After the presentations, Surface moderated a discussion of topics that ranged from identifying as radical to the necessity of a return to humanity in mainstream discourse. When asked if they consider themselves or their practices to be radical, many of the panelists said they had never thought of themselves in that light or pushed back on the label because of their belief that what they are doing should be the norm. Asked about the disparity in women’s incomes and where they go for support, the panelists discussed their struggles to make ends meet during their early careers They share the sense that they have had fortunate circumstances and consider themselves lucky to have the means they do today. Their references to pillars of support varied greatly from a dynamic and often antagonistic relationship with academia for Ms. King to a gallery for Mrs. Al-Hadid and family for Mrs. Martin.

The discussion ended with conversation of the four women’s goals for their work (whether professional or not) and navigating glass ceilings. The tone of the conversation and recurrent themes were reminders to the GSD that in order to earn the title of visionary designers, we must all acknowledge the deep rooted inequities that form the context in which we work. While we call these women radical for the work they do, it should inspire us to challenge ourselves and one another. At a school where women and underrepresented minorities face daily reminders of their low level of inclusion and acceptance in the design profession, subverting patriarchal traditions that uphold those inequities becomes the responsibility of each of us who consider ourselves part of the community. But as a member of the audience, my biggest takeaway was that the dynamic quality of this conversation would not have been possible without the diversity (of backgrounds and schools of thought) and comparatively polemical nature of this panel, something that I can only hope to see more of at the GSD.

Tagged , , , |

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *