The University of Pennsylvania School of Design sought to bring social equity back into architectural discourse last weekend with a conference called “Unspoken Borders: The Ecologies of Inequality,” hosted by the Black Student Alliance. Architects have been skittish about addressing large-scale social issues ever since the profession’s notorious Pruitt-Igoe-style failures in the 1960’s, said presenter Craig Wilkins. Since then, he added, the predominant attitude among architects has been, “‘We’re not doing that again. They got mad at us the last time we did that!’”
One of the most impassioned exceptions to that rule is architect Teddy Cruz, who gave the conference’s keynote speech on April 4th. Cruz described how the flows of people and goods across the US-Mexico border manifest the stark inequities between the two countries: people go north into San Diego; garbage goes south to Tijuana. His firm, Estudio Teddy Cruz, is turning those flows from signs of the problem into solutions to it, by finding ways to re-use building waste. So leftover garage doors from California, for example, become the walls of cheap housing for the Mexican poor. To institutionalize this kind of recycling, he has started convincing foreign factories in Tijuana to tweak their systems of production so that their byproducts can be re-used as scaffolding.
Participants at design conferences often call for more “interdisciplinary collaboration,” but it is rare for such talk to yield anything other than more talk. So it was especially refreshing to hear Maurice Cox, director of the National Endowment for the Arts, present some actual collaborative approaches to pressing social problems. “One in every 13 houses in Cleveland is vacant and they’re being vandalized,” he said. Pointing out that foreclosures have ripple effects for the communities they’re in, Cox asked, “What can design do for communities that have been devastated by high foreclosure?” In search of an answer, he’s putting together a team of architects, landscape architects, public artists, preservationists, land use attorneys, and developers. Instead of dealing individually with each foreclosed house, they’ll be looking for solutions at the block and district-scale, and ultimately convening with policy makers to put those solutions into action.
Amidst the discussion of what designers can do about social inequities, a related question emerged: should design education address the root causes of those inequities? “There’s no lack of design-build studios going out to poor neighborhoods to build houses, but there’s no discussion [in architecture school] of why those neighborhoods exist,” said architect Kian Goh. But isn’t there a trade-off between expertise and generalism? Some participants thought so, and urban designer Felipe Correa countered: “It is important that we not overextend the net, that we bring it back to what we know how to do best,” he argued. “Allow sociologists to deal with the sociology.”