The social activism of the 1960’s carried many a student of the time down a career path that would define their future. As an architecture student at the College of Environmental Design during that era, Sam Davis (B.Arch ’69) felt compelled to address social challenges through housing. For nearly 50 years since, as an award-winning architect and educator, Davis has devoted his talents to designing and advocating for affordable housing, housing for those with special needs, and facilities for the homeless.
On October 27th, 2018 at the 8th Annual CED Soirée, the College of Environmental Design community honored Sam Davis with the Catherine Bauer Wurster Award for Social Practice. Bestowed annually, the award recognizes CED alumni whose commitment to social and environmental justice, fair housing opportunities, healthy and equitable communities, and sustainable cities and regions reflects the legacy of Catherine Bauer Wurster, a staunch advocate for fair housing and the main architect of the U.S. Housing Act of 1937, and who with her husband William W. Wurster, helped found CED in 1959.
Sam Davis, F.A.I.A., is the founding principal of Sam Davis Architecture in Berkeley. He is a professor emeritus of Architecture at CED, where he taught from 1971 until 2009, and served as Interim Dean of CED and the School of Social Welfare, Associate Dean of CED, and Chair of the Department of Architecture. In addition to the many design awards won by his firm, Davis received the campus Distinguished Teaching Award in 1973 and the Excellence in Teaching Award from the California Council of the American Institute of Architects in 1995, and the Berkeley Citation in 2009. He has written three books on housing: The Form of Housing, The Architecture of Affordable Housing, and Designing for the Homeless: Architecture that Works. In 1985, Davis was elected to Fellowship in the American Institute of Architects.
Davis’s firm works with institutions, non-profit developers, and service providers to design housing for a wide range of people, many with special needs, including families, students, seniors, young people with HIV and AIDS, homeless youth, and homeless adults. While some might assume this category of housing demands a different approach, Davis notes the design process is much the same as any other type of architecture. “You try to understand the needs and aspirations of the residents and develop the physical designs that best meet those needs,” he explained. “What remains consistent is the need for transitional space from the most public to the most private. People need a place into which they can retreat.”
Integrating affordable and supportive housing into existing communities is a struggle, acknowledges Davis. “What people don’t seem to understand is that this type of housing — whether it be for low-income families, students, or formerly homeless people — is not unlike any other kind of housing. It is designed to fit the neighborhood, it has rules, rental contracts, lease agreements. There have been several studies that show there is no negative impact on property values or quality of life. But we are always trying to make a rational argument for irrational fears. And that’s a tough road.”
Re-envisioning People’s Park
Sam Davis is also the primary initiator of the current redevelopment plan for People’s Park in Berkeley, the 2.8-acre parcel with a storied past, owned by the University of California. Having been involved with the park for many years, he was dismayed that, in his opinion, the university was not fulfilling its responsibility to the people in and around the park. “I marched for the park in 1969. We shouldn’t ignore its history — the park will be 50 years old next year — but it is not now what it was envisioned to be. We have a responsibility to our community and to the people who have been living in the park to do something about providing housing for the formerly homeless.”
Davis has been working with UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ to help realize a new vision for the park. His four-part solution includes construction of both student housing and separate supportive housing, the preservation of open park space, and a memorial to the park’s history. Though the proposed number of housing units is merely a drop in the bucket compared to the enormous need for both students and the community’s most vulnerable, the development will benefit the university in other ways. The on-site services for the supportive housing will be provided in partnership with academic units on campus such as the School of Social Welfare and the School of Public Health.
The components of the project will entail public-private partnerships for the student housing and a nonprofit developer for the supportive housing. In addition to being the visionary on the development, Davis acts as an advisor to the Chancellor on homeless issues and a liaison to the City of Berkeley, serving on a number of task forces with the mayor, and is involved in a variety of decisions about the project, hoping to ensure its successful outcome. “The new development will be a more stable and much better environment than is currently the case,” said Davis. “Obviously much safer for students and for the homeless, and the surrounding housing will make the open space much more of a community space.”
Just as he was influenced by a heightened social awareness during his student years at Berkeley, as a professor in CED, Davis strove to instill that same appreciation in his students. “Whether we’re designing housing for those who have been left out of the market or focusing on sustainability, there’s always a strong social component to what we do. We’re building in the public realm, we’re using resources, and we’re affecting people’s lives. Historically, Berkeley’s great strength has been that social connection.” Because of his commitment, Davis established CED’s Sam Davis Social Practice Fund, which supports a range of programmatic activities enriching the student experience in this crucial dimension of environmental design.
About the Catherine Bauer Wurster Award
The Catherine Bauer Wurster Award for Social Practice recognizes alumni of the College of Environmental Design whose professional work and personal commitments have contributed significantly to social and environmental justice, fair housing opportunities, healthy and equitable communities, and sustainable cities and regions.
Catherine Bauer Wurster (1905-1964) was the foremost housing advocate of her generation and primary author of the landmark U.S. Housing Act of 1937, the nation’s first affordable housing legislation. A professor of City and Regional Planning at UC Berkeley, she was influential in shaping the intellectual rationale, professional aspirations, and social values of the university’s new College of Environmental Design, founded in 1959. Wurster Hall is named in honor of Catherine Bauer Wurster and her husband William W. Wurster, its founding dean.
Jon Stryker (M.Arch ’89), founder and president of the Arcus Foundation, was the inaugural recipient of the award in 2017.