Urban Transformations: breaking down barriers

Karen Lee Bar-Sinai, Deanna Van Buren, and Ed Walker engage seemingly intractable problems. Where most people see conflict, crime, and decay, these 3 new Loeb Fellows see the potential for peace, reconciliation, and beauty. Their September 7th joint presentation on Urban Transformations showed everyone in the audience how to see the way they do. From Jerusalem to Oakland to Roanoke, they are redefining the roles of architects, developers and social entrepreneurs.

Bar-Sinai and her firm SAYA encourage architects to think more like policy makers and policy makers to think more like architects. Based in Israel, Bar-Sinai refuses to tolerate the architectural deserts and ugly reality of security checkpoints, walls, and crossings. Instead, she and her team, which includes Palestinian professionals, have been using design to show that peace is possible in the region. They have mapped the ambiguity of boundaries in past peace treaties, shown the elegant potential of a border crossing within a city, and begun to think of space as a quilt. To demystify the complexity of territorial problems, they have created an online tool where people can draw their own borders with complex GIS data presented so cleanly that it becomes a game.

By diagraming territory to display connections, Bar-Sinai shows that obstacles are surmountable and peace imaginable.

Van Buren is also pushing the boundaries in areas previously untouched by architects. She and her firm FOURM are tackling the stark and unwelcoming world of justice architecture: prisons, detention centers, and courthouse. Her focus on restorative justice, used for years in Native American traditions and now in post-conflict sub-Saharan Africa, has led her to create restorative architecture.  A peace making room in a trailer was specially designed to serve as a restorative justice training institute in Oakland, California. Now Van Buren is working to create a modular meditation womb and developing paper tools that can be used by inmates to re-envision incarcerated spaces.

Van Buren, like Bar Sinai, believes it is possible to design for peace. She practices this belief as an artist, an avatar, and an activist. She has developed museum and gallery installations that welcome new and underserved audiences to engage with the space and the art in unconventional ways. Recognizing the long hours that people are spending in the virtual world, she agreed to design buildings in a new video game called The Witness. She hopes that by exposing a wider audience to incredible spaces for the built environment in the virtual realm, she can elevate the public’s expectations for quality in the physical built environment.

Walker, the final Loeb Fellow to present this week, gave the audience a virtual tour of his life. With a metaphor woven around “weight, drag, lift, and thrust,” he described how in spite of being more motivated by freedom than by money, he pursued a law degree that eventually enabled him to fly. He now excels at putting capital to work to beautify cities and knit communities.

He began his latest career as a developer and social entrepreneur by renovating the historic Grandin movie theater after he was told was it would never be profitable. It was and is, and from that success, Walker has spent the past twelve years showing Roanoke, Virginia that “conventional wisdom is bat-shit crazy”.

Just before coming to the GSD, Walker found an apartment building whose owner took stolen goods from parolees in exchange for rent and destabilized an entire neighborhood. Walker’s solution was to purchase the building’s note and call it in. He then refurbished the units, resituated the best tenants and showed that stewardship capital can provide affordable housing with a 10% return.

His organization CityWorks focuses on sharing big ideas and placemaking strategies for small cities. However, while Walker lives to make cities better, he is passionate about the power of human connections.

For all 3 fellows, building a better future is about removing barriers that separate people.

Fellowship Year: 2013
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