It was the first time Malaz Elgemiabby had attended the annual conference of the National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA). But it turned out to be like going back to her childhood in Sudan, being surrounded by architects, designers, and builders who looked like her, and who cared as deeply as she does about community participation in design. “In Sudan, architects are women,” Elgemiabby told AN. “So I used to build buildings when I was a kid. As women [in Sudan] your responsibility is to build the houses, to design, to assess the needs of the community.” Elgemiabby went to architecture school at London Metropolitan University, seeking out its program for its emphasis on community participation in design. She first went to work in the Middle East, where she also earned a master's degree in interdisciplinary design from the Qatar campus of Virginia Commonwealth University. She moved to Cleveland three years ago to work as an architect. After doing some projects that she’s quite proud of in the city, Elgemiabby launched her own firm, ELMALAZ, earlier this year in Cleveland. But it’s also been a bit lonely at times, being an architect on a mission to bring communities into the design process. “[In Cleveland] I’m one of the few who are advocating for this type of approach to architecture,” Elgemiabby said. “I come [to this year’s NOMA conference] and I find not only a lot of black and brown architects, but I also find people who are excited about the same mission. This was really great. It’s always nice to grow your tribe.” Growing that tribe, of course, has been NOMA’s goal all along, ever since twelve African American architects founded the organization during the 1971 AIA National Convention in Detroit. This year’s annual conference, in Brooklyn, attracted a record attendance of over a thousand participants for five days of programming, including service outings, seminars, keynote lectures, student design contests, and the usual networking and socializing. Overall, NOMA membership has grown 30 percent in 2019, under the leadership of NOMA president and HOK principal Kimberly Dowdell. The organization now has more than 1,400 members, organized under 30 professional chapters and 75 student chapters across the country. Under Dowdell, this year NOMA established a new tiered corporate membership program for large and small firms that wish to support the organization—and also gain access to discounted consulting from NOMA’s curated pool of experts in diversity, equity, and inclusion. Dubbed the “President’s Circle,” founding members include AIA, NCARB, Enterprise Community Partners, Cuningham Group, Shepley Bulfinch, Gensler, HOK, and Perkins & Will. But growth and progress for NOMA still come in the context of the Sisyphean task of making architecture more representative of the communities it serves. Out of 115,000 or so architects licensed in the U.S., only an estimated 2,299 are black. That context was made even more somber this year with the loss of one of NOMA’s giants, Phil Freelon, who passed away in July. NOMA renamed its annual professional design awards in his honor. Zena Howard worked with Phil Freelon for well over a decade. So it was fitting that this year’s NOMA conference programming included her delivery of the J. Max Bond Lecture, organized annually by the New York Chapter of NOMA and the AIANY Diversity and Inclusion Committee. Howard’s talk focused on the notion of “Remembrance Design,” which emerged over the past few years through her work with Freelon and others. Now principal and managing director of the North Carolina office at Perkins+Will, Howard used some of her firm's recent projects to illustrate remembrance design in action. The examples varied in scale and scope from the 1.1-acre Sycamore Hill Gateway Plaza in Greenville, North Carolina, to a 30-acre design process covering Miami’s Overtown neighborhood, to a 1.3-mile “linear museum” along the Crenshaw Boulevard transit corridor in Los Angeles. All were historically black neighborhoods, typically scarred by racially-discriminatory redlining and later the era of urban renewal and the construction of the interstate highway system. In short, remembrance design is a way of using architectural discovery as a healing process to unearth, unpack and honor painful histories in neighborhoods that have traditionally been disinvested and neglected—or worse yet, bulldozed and paved over—by the worlds of architecture, urban planning, and real estate. “It’s about engaging people who have historically not been engaged,” Howard said. “First engaging with these communities, there’s a lot of hurt. I once thought to myself you have to go get a psychology degree or something. It’s difficult sometimes to hear. But over time, you realize that the pain a lot of people have, they have to release that, you sort of have to provide an outlet for it. A lot of it at first is just listening.” Howard spoke about how that deep listening process turns architecture into more than just a design process; it elevates architecture into a healing process. It can even make the architect’s job a little easier in the end. Once you move past the pain, Howard said, some participants from the community will actually feel inspired enough to start sketching themselves. “Even if you can’t get people really to talk about something, they can sketch something, they can draw,” Howard said. “It becomes therapeutic in a lot of ways. Once you get passed that threshold you really start moving fast towards design solutions that they’re a part of.” That depth of community engagement resonated with many NOMA members, from Elgemiabby to NOMA National Board Member and SOM senior urban designer Tiara Hughes, whose childhood neighborhood in St. Louis is now a baseball field. “I understand what [Howard] was referring to that there’s trauma and feelings and emotions that we have to deal with collectively as a group,” Hughes told AN. And it certainly resonated with Dowdell, who was partly inspired to become an architect by growing up among vacant homes and boarded-up commercial corridors in Detroit. “The kind of engagement that Zena [Howard] and her team has done or is doing, I think that’s probably standard practice for a lot of architects here [at the conference],” Dowdell said. Dowdell is hopeful that more and more of those kinds of projects will come up as the U.S. and especially its cities become more and more diverse. The U.S. Census Bureau predicts people of color will become a majority in the U.S. by 2043. Dowdell views NOMA’s work as preparing architecture for that future. “We all have to be more conscious of the fact that more and more clients will be people of color, more and more government officials—people with more power,” she said. Of course, in bringing good design to more diverse places that have historically been neglected or harmed by earlier periods of development, the conversation naturally turns to how good design can risk putting new pressure on market conditions, pushing up property taxes or rents and pushing out the very residents who participate in these design processes. Howard brought up the example of Hogan’s Alley in Vancouver, British Columbia, as one where the residents and elected officials are looking to a community land trust as a policy intervention to protect those residents the project had in mind as end-users. “The thing [Howard] also mentioned, rightly so, was the thing that design can’t solve: the political and economic conditions that need to be grappled with to effectively prevent gentrification and the negative effects of gentrification,” Dowdell said. “I think reinvestment is fine, but I think when it starts to displace people who have had a stake in that community for years, decades, generations, that’s going to be problematic.”
Posts tagged with "social justice":
While “justice” might be considered too abstract a design initiative for most architects, it has become a second language for the Oakland-based Designing Justice + Designing Spaces (DJDS). Co-founded by Deanna Van Buren and Kyle Rawlins, DJDS was established to create spaces for restorative justice, rehabilitation, and community building to provide solutions to the root causes of America’s mass incarceration crisis. As Van Buren stated in her popular TED Talk, the goal of DJDS is to focus design attention away from the “improvement” of the prison system and to instead transform the everyday spaces where justice should be taking place. By helping transition the punitive justice system into one of restorative justice, the firm hopes to improve the living conditions for millions of traditionally-underserved citizens while seeking an end to mass incarceration. Given that the projects they create do not fit into any traditional funding mechanism, the eight-person team decided to become both an architecture firm and real estate development nonprofit. They receive funding from philanthropic organizations, which is then used to leverage financing from socially-responsible lenders and investors, and state and federal programs, such as New Market Tax Credits, which support investments in low-income communities. These strategies have allowed DJDS to avoid many of the traps other justice-oriented firms have fallen into while establishing and improving upon several novel building types, including “resource villages,” “peacemaking centers,” and “social justice campuses.” To develop each project, DJDS intimately engages with the communities it intends to service. For a housing facility for youth transitioning out of foster care in Atlanta, for instance, DJDS engaged with the community during a nine-month process that included model-making, visual games, and finance education. In many cases, they learned that the spaces they create should be flexible, reconfigurable, and mobile in order to provide civic resources wherever they may be needed. Restore Oakland Completed last July, Restore Oakland is a 20,000-square-foot complex providing community advocacy and training sessions in the Fruitvale district for those in the Bay Area requiring such services, including immigrants, people of color, and those who have been previously incarcerated. Its bright walls, use of warm woods, and well-lit spaces are intended to contrast the aesthetics commonly associated with the prison system. Restore Oakland is a “social justice campus,” which Van Buren describes as a center for facilities in the service of restorative economics, including housing, restorative retail, and spaces for peacemaking and trauma-informed education. “What Restore Oakland represents,” said Van Buren, “is programs, place, and people coming together to build infrastructure that’s equitable.” It is jointly owned by the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, whose goal is to reduce incarceration rates and improve resources for people of color in the neighborhood, and Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, which has placed a COLORS restaurant on the ground floor to train low-income communities of color for jobs in the restaurant industry. The two owners of Restore Oakland hope that the new campus will help community members “dream, organize and act together for real community safety and self-determination.” Mobile Refuge Rooms In collaboration with Building Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency (BOSS), DJDS designed low-cost living units in Alameda County for recently incarcerated men. Each unit is primarily made of durable, inexpensive wood and is equipped with three essential furniture components—a bed, a desk, and storage space—that can be easily reconfigured to meet the personal preferences of its occupants. Sliding doors, folding panels, and built-in amenities are installed as space-efficient design gestures that appear both solid and permanent, despite the fact that the units can all be easily transported. Formerly incarcerated citizens not only participated in a two-month community engagement process following their design, but were also involved in every step of their fabrication, from initial designs to the finished product. Five Keys Mobile Classroom For the Five Keys Schools and Programs in California’s Bay Area, DJDS created the Five Keys Mobile Classroom, a retrofitted MUNI bus with classroom space, a library, and a mobile hotspot for online learning. The ergonomic detailing of its built-in furniture makes the compact interior ampler, providing room for guidance counseling sessions and social services that address issues including violence and drug abuse prevention. By bringing “the school to the people,” the Mobile Classroom provides much-needed educational facilities for neighborhoods whose residents are below the federal poverty line and cannot easily afford to travel. Its lime-green exterior becomes a beacon of hope in the neighborhoods it services, helping participants “choose their own path in life rather than stumbling along one strewn with gangs, drugs, and possibly, jail.” Pop-Up Village Much like the Five Keys Mobile Classroom and the Mobile Refuge Rooms, the Pop-Up Village is not fixed in any one location, as a way of providing services wherever they are needed. When the Pop-Up Village was first deployed in February of this year, it turned a vacant outdoor lot in an underserved area into a vibrant public space catalyzing “the magic that emerges when people and programs come together,” according to DJDS. As a “site-activation tool,” the Pop-Up Village brings together several justice-oriented programs, including those for health and wellness, retail, food, education, and services targeted toward youth and families. With the aesthetics of a swap meet or a farmer’s market, the project elevates the task of providing civic resources with dignity and uplifting design.
On September 3rd, to the dismay of many community members and prison reform activists, New York City’s Planning Commission (CPC) approved Mayor de Blasio’s “Smaller, Safer, Fairer” plan to shut down Rikers Island's jail facilities and replace them with four smaller borough-based centers by 2026. With CPC’s 9-to-3 approval, the plan now moves forward to City Council before heading to the Mayor for approval as the last step in the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP). The council was given 50 days to consider the details before making the make-or-break vote scheduled for October 17. The Mayor’s plan would introduce a 1,150-bed jail tower to a site in close proximity to each borough’s courthouse—down from what was originally proposed—as a way of improving transportation to court dates as well as bringing inmates closer to their families and communities. (Bronx residents are already suing the city for not living up to this promise with the jail proposed in Mott Haven.) Bronx Community Board 1 wasn’t the only board to unanimously vote against new jails. Each community board in an area sited for a new jail tower voted down the plan for a number of reasons, which have been echoed by local residents and prison reform activists—including Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who recently endorsed the most prominent advocacy group, No New Jails. For Ocasio-Cortez, the Rikers Island complex should absolutely be closed but no jails should be built in its place. She hopes that at the “bare minimum” the vote is delayed until further information on what will be done with Rikers Island after its decommissioning has been gathered. She also points to the lack of clarity in what the plan will actually do. This lack of concrete vision was also a concern for Orlando Marín, one of the three CPC commissioners who voted against the project. “At this point, we are being asked to vote on an application but have few details,” Marín said during the September meeting, according to Curbed. “The programming thoughts are clearly not finalized by the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice and contradictions that exist in the thinking and planning of physical structures.” “For me one of the red flags is the fact that the largest infrastructure investments that we’re going to make as a city ($11 billion) won’t be towards homelessness, fixing our subways, or repairing NYCHA...it’s going towards incarcerating people,” Ocasio-Cortez explained to a reporter on C-SPAN. America currently incarcerates more people than any place in the world, and Ocasio-Cortez added, “We need to de-carcerate our country.” While de Blasio’s plan claims that it will shrink the city’s jail population from 7,400 to 4,000 by 2026 through a combination of sentencing and bail reform, jail abolitionists are questioning whether building new towers is the right way to accomplish this. The question remains: How does architecture enforce systemic injustice, and how can architects develop ethical guidelines to address the right way to navigate the country’s jail crisis? One group of New York City architects, engineers, and designers have organized to develop an alternative to the borough-based towers in favor of a college-campus-like plan (seen above) that they believe would create more humane conditions for inmates, save money for taxpayers, and not impose new development on any neighborhoods. The 45-page plan was delivered to City Council last Friday. It includes razing the existing Rikers Island Facilities and creating a new campus that includes a hospital, mental health facilities, open farming space, and work-training centers. To cut back on the travel time issue, a ferry system would be implemented. A last-minute attempt to be sure, and according to the New York Post, one de Blasio spokeswoman, Avery Cohen, declined to address questions about the plan. Cohen wrote in a statement: “We consider this a historic opportunity to build on the city’s decarceration efforts that have fundamentally reshaped our criminal justice system, and will continue working with the Council as we move forward to finalize our plan.”
The United States incarcerates more people, at a much higher rate, than any other country on the planet. Five times as many people are locked up in America today, per capita, than 50 years ago, with devastating consequences for families and communities. In New York City, the eight sprawling jails on Rikers Island are symbols of this half-century of mass incarceration. They are notorious for violence and inhumane treatment. They are emblematic of racial disparities in our society: almost 90 percent of the people on Rikers are black or Latinx. Like mass incarceration itself, Rikers is largely hidden from whiter and wealthier communities. There is a once-in-a-generation chance to end this injustice. After a hard-fought campaign led by formerly incarcerated people and the findings of a commission led by the state’s former chief judge, New York City has embarked on a far-reaching effort to close the Rikers jails. The City aims to halve the number of people in jail and move those who remain incarcerated to a smaller system of facilities located closer to the borough courthouses. The plan would reduce the number of jails from eleven (the eight jails on Rikers plus three in the boroughs) to four and reduce the number of people in jail from 7,300 today to 4,000 or fewer. When the City committed to closing Rikers in 2017, it already had the lowest incarceration rate of any major American city (though much higher than any comparable international city). Since then, the number of people in jail on any given day has already dropped by more than 2,000, thanks to hard work from community organizations, pressure from advocates, and changes to the ways that police, prosecutors, and courts are doing their jobs. There is much farther to go, but the goal is within reach. With the progress achieved so far, New York City remains as safe as it’s ever been, proving that there are better ways to fight crime than mass incarceration. The question that remains is whether a smaller, redesigned borough system can put an end to the problems of Rikers. There are good reasons to believe it will. First, location matters. Three of the proposed facilities are on the sites of operating or decommissioned jails next to courthouses in civic centers in Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Queens. The fourth is on an NYPD tow pound in the Bronx that is not adjacent to the local court, but which is closer than Rikers or the current City jail in the Bronx, a barge that would be closed along with Rikers. Proximity to courts would help ensure that people arrive to court on time, avoiding case delays that unfairly lengthen incarceration. Better access to public transportation would enable family members to visit more frequently, fostering connections that are demonstrated to improve behavior within jails and improve chances for success on the outside. Nonprofit service providers would be able to see their clients much more frequently, bolstering people’s chances of successful community re-entry. Lawyers would be able to visit clients to prepare their defense, which very rarely occurs at Rikers. Community locations would also increase accountability. No longer would people be hidden on an isolated island, invisible to the public and virtually impervious to oversight. Gone would be the sprawling jail system that exponentially increases the Department of Correction’s management challenges, providing the best chance to break the dysfunctional status quo and change correctional practices. Second, design matters. Unlike today’s jails, these facilities can and should be designed to be places of rehabilitation, not of punishment. Hospitable visiting areas would encourage connections to family and support networks. Sufficient spaces for programming, education, health care, and recreation would mean people could access important services. Improved sightlines and other security features would enhance safety for all. Decent breakrooms and facilities for officers can boost well-being and morale, rippling out to improve conditions for everyone inside. These design principles are incorporated in the City’s initial plans. It is these improved designs that drive the size and height of the proposed facilities, which is one of the main concerns of their opponents. Thanks to recent bail reform legislation, the City has lowered the planned capacity by 1,000 people. This should significantly reduce the buildings’ bulk without compromising much-needed space and services. The City should also move people with serious mental illness to hospital-based treatment facilities, which would further reduce the scale of the borough jails. Building vastly improved facilities will not come cheap. But without them, there is no closing Rikers. And to put the construction costs in context, today’s Rikers-based system of eleven jails costs more than $2.6 billion each year to operate—a stunning $300,000 per incarcerated person per year. A smaller proposed system in the boroughs would slash that operating spending by more than half, savings billions over time and far eclipsing the money spent on construction. Much of the freed-up money should be invested in the communities most impacted by mass incarceration. Reformers have to enter this process with their eyes open. We have to ensure that the initial design principles are not compromised in the final outcome. And as long as anyone is locked up, advocacy and oversight will always be needed so that post-Rikers facilities are operated in a way that keeps people safe and gives them a fair shot at success when they return home. Controversies over land use are inevitable in our crowded city. Concerns about whether the promise of a new system can truly break with the past have to be taken seriously. But those who call for this plan to be defeated should know that the result would be continuing the unacceptable status quo of the Rikers penal colony. This is not the first attempt to shutter that awful island. Prior closure efforts as far back as the late 1970s were defeated for many of the same reasons opponents raise today, perpetuating this decades-long crisis in the jails. We cannot allow history to repeat itself. As the land use review process moves forward this fall, New York City has a momentous choice: approve a much smaller system of borough facilities as we work to end mass incarceration, or endure the traumas of Rikers for generations to come. Tyler U. Nims is the executive director of the Independent Commission on NYC Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform Dan Gallagher is an architect practicing in New York City. In collaboration with the Van Alen Institute, he lead Justice in Design, focusing on design innovation in spaces of detention in New York City. He is currently a member of the Design Working Group for the Mayors Office of Criminal Justice, establishing the Guiding Principles for Design in the borough-based jail proposals.
Today, the University of California, Berkeley, announced Deanna Van Buren, co-founder of Designing Justice + Designing Spaces (DJDS), as the recipient of this year’s Berkeley-Rupp Architecture Professorship and Prize. An award honoring architects or academics who show a commitment to sustainability and the community, it offers up the chance to teach and conduct research for a semester at UC Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design (CED). Van Buren is the mind behind DJDS, an Oakland-based nonprofit aiming to holistically transform the American jail system through a vision called restorative justice. As a national leader and advocate for smart justice architecture, her work zeroes in on supportive justice interventions that can help solve the serious issues caused by mass incarceration. Her architecture and real estate development practice, which she launched with Kyle Rawlins in 2015, works with government, non-profit, and community partners to spread awareness and create design projects that address social justice needs. “Deanna is a visionary leader, whose design work and activism are reshaping the cultural construct of justice in the U.S.,” said CED Dean Jennifer Wolch in a statement. “Her support for underserved communities, and efforts to create spaces that cultivate diversity in our field, exemplify the values we strive to encourage with this prize.”Van Buren’s extensive background showcases her commitment to the role of architect-activist. Last November, she spoke at a TEDWomen conference where she challenged the audience to consider what the world would like without prisons, and what we could build in their place. Before beginning DJDS, Van Buren founded the public interest design studio FOURM, and earlier this year started BIG Oakland, a new co-working space for minority- and women-owned architecture, engineering, and construction companies. Van Buren previously held positions at Perkins+Will, The Buchan Group, and Eric R. Kuhn & Associates where she completed institutional, educational, and urban design projects around the world. Her portfolio with DJDS includes a handful of peacemaking centers, roving villages, and housing units for youth in both Syracuse and Oakland, among other places. Her latest project is Restore Oakland, a restorative justice and economics center in East Oakland that, when open next spring, will be the first of its kind in the United States. Her team also recently launched the Pop-Up Resource Village in the greater San Francisco Bay Area, which brings resources and dynamic programming to in-need communities of color via mobile architecture and nature. Van Buren believes in the power of design and creative placemaking as means to help keep people out of the jail system and provide room for healing as well as training on the systemic injustices that stem from inequality. “Architecture is a potent medium for shifting and solidifying and fomenting movements,” she said. “We can’t do much without space. We can’t launch movements without a place for us to gather that is safe and nourishing.” Among her many accolades, Van Buren is the only architect to have ever been awarded the Rauschenberg Artist as Activist Fellowship, and she’s also held the Loeb Fellowship at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. As part of the Berkeley-Rupp Professorship and Prize, she will be awarded $100,000 and the visiting professorship at UC Berkeley starting next fall. There she’ll focus on a book project and teach an intensive seminar that explores architectural responses for peace-building. She’ll also give a public lecture and hold a gallery exhibition. Past recipients of the Berkeley-Rupp prize include Carme Pinós in 2016, Sheila Kennedy in 2014, and Deborah Berke in 2012.
Studio Gang Architects' Arcus Center at Kalamazoo College in Michigan broke ground in 2012. Now photos of this sylvan study space are available, following its September opening. And they don't disappoint. The 10,000-square-foot building is targeting LEED Gold. Gang's press release said the new social justice center, a trifurcated volume terminating in large transparent window-walls, “brings together students, faculty, visiting scholars, social justice leaders, and members of the public for conversation and activities aimed at creating a more just world.” The open interior spaces are connected with long sight lines and awash in natural light—a cozy condition Studio Gang says will break down barriers and help visitors convene. The building's concave exterior walls are made of a unique wood-masonry composite that its designers say will sequester carbon. It also, says a release, “challenges the Georgian brick language and plantation-style architecture of the campus’s existing buildings.”
Studio Gang, which recently kicked off the first solo exhibition of their work at the Art Institute of Chicago, will celebrate another opening event next month: the architects’ Arcus Center at Kalamazoo College will ceremoniously break ground October 9. Gently curving wood walls demarcate a 10,000-square-foot space for social justice leadership development in the woods. The structure uses local white cedar, engaging its environment while transparent façade elements honor the building’s goal to facilitate conversation. Targeting LEED Gold certification, the project will source sustainably harvested wood for its low-impact, highly insulating structure. A curvilinear floor plan funnels activity from the building’s three wings into a communal meeting space. Though the corridors grow out from the central area and allow for separate functions in the institutional building, large windows at each terminus accentuate a feeling of interconnection with generous sightlines.