Surprisingly out of that project’s longwinded and confusing period of architectural selection, a special client/designer partnership emerged that would push the notion of program-driven planning into critical overdrive. The resulting project, which has received almost universal praise since its opening last May, defies categorization in terms of both place and space. It serves its community as far more than Library, enabling and celebrating that feat with richly textured architectural moves that pile up like assorted books and media on the City’s living room floor.
During the yearlong selection process, Koolhaas steadfastly refused to predict an architectural outcome, spending the time he had with the SPL client to move them from their predictably jumbled sense of mission towards a more thoughtful exploration of the very broad opportunity presented by a millennial “library,” as well as rethinking their institutional makeup. By recasting their project premise, its organization and programmatic “DNA” first, OMA was applying architectural instincts and a critical design process to formalize a more compelling framework for the subsequent architectural effort. By all reports this approach not only served to differentiate OMA during the selection, but once chosen, brought important substance to their early client interactions, naturally setting the stage for true innovation of architectural expression.
While many of us practice this approach as a matter of course, it is unusual to see the sponsors and designers of a high visibility project like the SPL broadcast overt public delight in their joint activism. In his excellent article in the British journal Blueprint (July 2004), Shumon Basar suggests that “an old modernist preoccupation drove the design: ‘brutally rational steps’ (in Rem-speak) – or function (for the rest of us)” and points out that “OMA has finally succeeded in what it had been promising for years: to curate the functioning of a public institution…to construct a critical working process, full of honesty without one-liner moralism.”
Offered in introduction to their formal proposal, OMA’s critique gives us a glimpse into Koolhaas’ radical design activism at its strident best:
“The Library represents, maybe with the prison, the last of the uncontested moral universes: communal accommodations for ‘good’ (or necessary) activities… The moral goodness of the Library is intimately connected to the value of the book: the Library is its fortress, librarians are its guardians… As other mediums of information emerge and become plausible, the Library seems threatened, a fortification ready to be ‘taken’ by potential enemies. In this scheme, the Electronic is identified with the Barbaric. Its ubiquity and its uncontrollable accessibility seem to represent a loss of control, depth, tradition, civilization. In response, the language of the Library has become moralistic and defensive: its rhetoric proclaims – implicitly and explicitly a sense of superiority in mission, in social responsibility, in value… The Library’ s insistence on one kind of literacy has blinded it to other emerging forms that increasingly dominate our culture, especially the huge efficiencies (and pleasures) of visual intelligence. New libraries don’t reinvent or even modernize the traditional institution; they merely package it in a new way.
Our ambition is to redefine/reinvent the Library as an institution no longer exclusively dedicated to the book, but as an information store, where all media – new and old – are presented under a regime of new equalities. In an age where information can be accessed anywhere, it is the simultaneity of all media and the professionalism of their presentation and interaction, that will make the Library new. Technology is not a threat, but it enables the realization of ancient ambitions – totality, completeness, dissemination, accessibility. In any case, the anticipation of a looming conflict between the real and the virtual is moot at the moment where the two can be made to coincide, become each other’s mirror image. The virtual can become the distributed presence of the new Seattle Public Library that users find confirmed in its actual site in the city.”
San Francisco architect Hugh Hynes, having recently reveled in a SPL visit, believes that this 1999 manifesto has become a 2005 reality: “OMA’s trademark broad sampling of uses and activities from urban culture at large scrambles the library as a recognizable programmatic type. The impression is not that one is picking through a library, but rather wandering through a piece of the city itself. Programmatic categories unique to this project – “the mixing chamber,” for example – define the nature of public space in Seattle’s center according to performance rather than title.”
With such a popular building to give its message credence, OMA’s call to arms for a new take on the public library may well become legendary. The great hope is that all this interest in the SPL story will bring new urgency to our larger call: that there are no programs, no institutions, that deserve less from their designers than a new take.
This article is dedicated to the memory of Kevin Aaron, Class of 2003, Department of City & Regional Planning, who worked diligently to make McClymonds mini-park redesign a reality for the youth of West Oakland.
Under the guidance of the innovative UC Berkeley-based Y-PLAN, 40 youngsters from McClymonds High School in West Oakland have created preliminary designs for a unique and inviting neighborhood gathering place, transforming what the City of Oakland called “one of the six most dangerous parks in Oakland.” To accomplish this, the teenagers partnered with 20 city planning, design and education graduate students to create a plan, win support of community agencies, and develop the once drug-infested property just 20 feet from their school. Today, not only the park but the participating individuals and organizations are being transformed by their successful experience.
The Y-PLAN is an award-wining classroom and community-based research project through which graduate students engage in Bay Area community development projects by teaching city planning and design to local high school students. The project is at the core of the Institute of Urban and Regional Development’s new Center for Cities and Schools, founded by the author and doctoral student Jeff Vincent. The center’s vision is to bridge the fields of education and urban policy to create equitable, diverse, and livable cities and schools.
Underlying the strategy of both the Center and the Y-PLAN is the knowledge that public space is a powerful identity-forming presence in the lives of urban teenagers. They understand the rhythm and nature of places in unique ways, defined by the way they use the area and the social relations that are generated there — not by what other “experts” deem important. The Y-PLAN process validates these insights and the powerful contributions young people can make to improving public spaces. The program helps them translate their unique understanding of the places where they live, play, or go to school into proposals for improving their environment.
The Y-PLAN begins with a 10-week mentorship class in community development, taught by the graduate students. Working with their graduate student partners, the high school students develop plans and then present them to a jury of civic leaders and professional designers. Past panel reviewers have included CED Dean Harrison Fraker, City and Regional Planning Chair John Landis, Councilwoman Nancy Nadel, CED alumni such as Amanda Kobler, also a former Y-PLAN participant, and many local residents. The goal of the final presentation is not only to get feedback but also to galvanize support and stewardship for the youth’s ideas.
That is exactly what happened in May 2002, when the jury involved in a Y-PLAN project to redesign an abandoned mini-park in West Oakland decided to join with the youthful participants in realizing their vision. Besides their sense of accomplishment, the teenagers, too often alienated from public processes, learned the invisible mechanisms and practices of urban change: what they have done once, they may be able to do again. All of them benefited from their close working relationships with possible role models, and one, Yahya Abdulmateen, is now a freshman in CED. Talking about the Y-PLAN experience he said:
“Getting the opportunity to work with college students on something that I had such high interest in was a great experience. I got to experience what the design process was for architects. I enjoyed working with people who had the same career interests as myself…The Y-PLAN helped me to get a better understanding of planning and architecture as a whole. It also provided me an architectural mentor by introducing me to Professor Walter Hood. I stepped onto the Berkeley campus feeling like I had an advantage.”
In the end it was the compelling insights discovered by the local high school students in the Y-Plan experience that persuaded Walter Hood to take on the challenge of bringing the project into a built reality. Hood believes that “a static master plan is ultimately a useless goal — what we strive to do is find a dynamic set of operations that gives hope and vision to citizens’ desires. It is not about a finite image. The community invests in a process that delivers design dreams.”
Hood’s dynamic approach to community design is best illustrated in his designs for Cesar Chavez Park. The phasing diagrams show how the park will evolve over time with each community “operation”, leading to phase (5) illustrated in the model and plan. What distinguishes Hood’s work, however, is not just involving the community in a “dynamic set of operations” but in his search for the “poetic moment”. As Hood explains,“working with communities is not only meetings, brainstorming and design charrettes, but involves funding ways to elevate particular ideas so they reach a poetic moment in material form.”
In working with the students, school officials and residents at McClymonds Mini Park, Hood had them write “narratives” about the place, draw a “timeline” of the site’s history, and identify “objects” of meaning to its history and story. In the process, the community (and Hood) discovered ideas of deep significance that lead to the following major design ideas:
- Expanding out into 26th Street to enlarge the park and closing through traffic.
- Removing a large portion of fencing that faces the park and building movable gates developed in coordination with local artist.
- Planting a linear promenade of trees that stretch across the entire school grounds connecting the north and south streets.
Hood and the community have proposed a framework for change to the public space around McClymonds High School that if successfully implemented, will be unprecedented. Through a process of design activism, the integration of the school back into the community may be possible. This could not happen if not for the work of students in the Y-PLAN who provided the inspiration to re-imagine the streets and park of McClymonds.
This article is inspired by Ari Goldstein ‘04 and Matt Murray ’04 whom I had the pleasure of teaching in ED1 and LA 242 and who now challenge me by their creative courage to make the world better through design activism.Let me get several things straight at the outset. Although I’ve been asked to write about a subset of activity that is labeled design activism, it is obvious that all design is design activism. No architectural design is ever implemented through inactivity. Building anything requires considerable force. There is no such thing as passive design. Even passive solar design is assertive. Preservation requires action. The ‘no build’ alternative is an act of aggression. And certainly architecture to serve status quo powers is seldom submissive and often brutal.
Every act of city making, landscape architecture, environmental planning and architecture is a creative act, a direct action to achieve an end, the very definition of activism. For some, this activism serves to push the boundaries of self expression. For others it pushes or constricts the boundaries of society. In all cases design creates an order, however temporary and deconstructed, that elevates some political will. Every design action is a political act that concretizes power and authority.
Form makers follow political function and order it whether the designer leads social transformations or celebrates corporate and military authority. But the form may be deceiving. Radical form most often advances the agenda of the elite within the dominant society seeking to conserve its power. Conservative form frequently serves socially transformative purposes, particularly for the oppressed and poor. But beyond aesthetics is there substantive difference in the various political approaches designers employ? Yes, it is a question of design activism for whom.
Types of Design Activism
As with most matters architectural, typologies explicate. Five types of design postures illustrate political activism as follows:
- The Blissfully Naïve
- The Savvy Naïve
The Blissfully Naïve are typically spatially talented and contextually ignorant. They simply do not see the connectedness of systems beyond their architecture. This allows them to design an airport in Chigu Lagoon, Taiwan causing the extinction of the endangered black-faced spoonbill and the loss of 24,000 jobs in fishing, or to design Orange County subdivisions in China undermining local culture and creating unattainable objects of status. Can the design of the building really be separated from the decision about its location? For the blissfully naïve it can. They are so focused on the form-making of objects that they are blind to the political impacts of their actions. They have unusual tunnel and no peripheral vision. Because they can draw and create space, they have been rewarded in school where design is frequently separated from its political consequences to focus on the development of form-making skills. Later, sheltered in the best corporate firms, they work without having to confront the political or environmental consequences of their action. I believe the blissfully naïve truly don’t know whose values they concretize and whose politics they advance. They misspeak with sincerity that there is no relationship between architecture and politics.
Second, are the Savvy Naïve who are usually less talented spatially and more aware of connectedness. They feign naiveté to cover political shrewdness. They know power when they see it and cast their lot with the powerful to get commissions. They are so pleased to get to design something big that they pretend not to know better. They understand the political implications of their design work but claim ignorance. The Savvy Naïve can develop, as the architect Thomas Leitersdorf did, the Israeli strategy to control the Palestinians by capturing the most ground with the fewest settlements possible. His is a brilliant, architecturally inspired, military action to take over hilltops and dominate the entire West Bank while occupying only two per cent of the land. This same architect, apparently with a straight face, claims, “I’m weak on politics.” And further, “architecture doesn’t influence politics.” The Savvy Naïve designer is well aware of the politics he advances and is an active accomplice to political power, but he pleads to be just an architect.
The third type are Servants, which includes most designers They describe their role as serving clients, and, when questioned, they too plead that they are only giving form to their clients’ needs. Indeed an individual design act, a single building or park, may seem inconsequential in the broader political context, but this excuse is a convenient disconnect. These designers understand and often support the normative political agendas of their clients. Although the servant role might be viewed as demeaning, these designers argue that it is fundamental to a service profession; while not acknowledging their complicit role in giving artistic expression to powerful interests, be they private, corporate or state.In fact, the very power of these clients is attractive due to the ease with it enables the designer’s art. It is this subservient political role and the artistic license it allows that Phillip Johnson referenced when he said that all architects are “whores” to those with power. It is here that we often see radical form serving regressive social and aggressive military ends.
The fourth type Contextualists. Our college explores contextualism and produces good contextual designers. They take into account history, culture, and environment, especially at the site scale. They may play servant roles but in most cases will try to address broader social issues within the bounds of polite politics. This frequently pays off with an unusual, almost accidental coup de main for a cause like environmental justice or sustainability. Contextualists support more radical activists although they may not be themselves.
Agents for Change
The fifth type are Catalysts. These are architectural agents of change, the group usually considered activist designers, but remember all the types are political activists. Other designers call this group radical designers, largely to marginalize them and stigmatize their design. Admittedly some aren’t skilled or savvy form makers. Others like Sam Mockbee and Walter Hood are. Catalysts see design not only as a symbolic and utilitarian end but also a stimulus to bring about political transformations.
Issues of justice have long been a central focus of our Department of City and Regional Planning. Unequal distribution of basic resources like housing and open space, inaccessibility and exclusion motivate many planners and a few designers who work as advocates for the poor and dispossessed. Long before Paul Davidoff gave such efforts a name, advocate planners, people like Catherine Bauer Wurster worked to provide suitable housing for all Americans. Mike Teitz, among others, carried the effort forward in policy, especially related to affordable and rental housing. Graduates of the college were involved in creating Bridge Housing, a non-profit leader in building affordable housing. Some architects, most notably, Sam Davis, Mike Pyatok and Peter Waller, have dedicated personal and professional lives to creating housing that is not just affordable but also beautiful and livable. Others have been aggressive advocates for place-appropriate economic development and equal access to nature. In almost every city open space is disproportionately available to wealthier neighborhoods. Our recent projects for Union Point Park in Fruitvale and the Natural Park in South Central Los Angeles only came to fruition after embarrassing authorities with maps clearly showing a pattern of discrimination against the poor in providing parkland in Oakland and Los Angeles respectively. Such maps of environmental injustices are a powerful tool for some designers.
Participation, Empowerment, and Deep Democracy
Other Catalyst Designers focus on participation, empowerment of the less powerful, and deep democracy. Our college is one of the few professional design schools to systematically teach participatory design. Marcia McNally has taught the course since 1988. Many of our graduates have significantly advanced democratic design. Through proactive practice, a term coined by Mark Francis, their design process consciously attends not just to building the environment but also to cultivating civic skills. The work of CED graduate Scott McCreary demonstrates how the most contentious land use and environmental issues can be resolved more intelligently when all powers share equal authority and knowledge. Techniques like joint fact finding and the single text distinguish his work. Daniel Iacofano attends more directly to the involvement of diverse groups often excluded from democratic decision making; he has created new participatory methods that allow disenfranchised publics their own voices. His inventions include phenomenological techniques like scored walking tours, city views, and stewardship workdays. In Tokyo, Asanoumi Yoshihara builds a sense of community with techniques like drawing on his feet, neighborhood treasure hunts and mockups that have led to extraordinary new stream ecologies and civic places; all of these designers demonstrate that good cities today depend upon an empowered, well educated, and responsible citizenry willing and able to practice direct democracy and complex stewardship. The group we founded in our college in 1998, Democratic Designers in the Pacific Rim, has become a primary mechanism for younger, creative practitioners throughout the region to advance empowering planning processes of city making.
Cultural and Biological Diversity
Many catalysts design primarily to maintain diversity in the face of global homogenization. Through what is labeled as “post modern resistance”, these designers create alternative economies and habitation that enhance cultural and biological diversity. Our work with John Liu and Chu Joe Hsia at National Taiwan University illustrates how the two are intertwined. For several years we have worked collaboratively to save the black-faced spoonbill (Platalea minor) from extinction. It is the rarest spoonbill bird in the world and on the brink of extinction, largely because of loss of wetland habitat throughout coastal Asia from Russia, China and Korea to Taiwan and the Philippines. The single most important winter habitat at the Tsen wen Estuary and Chigu Lagoon in Tainan County, Taiwan is comprised of natural waterways, aquaculture ponds, and abandoned government-owned salt lands. This habitat was originally scheduled as the location for one of the largest petrochemical and industrial complexes in the world, the Binnan project. In spite of government scientist disclaimers, the project would have led to the extinction of the spoonbill. After extensive research, we founded a non-governmental organization, SAVE International, to fight the Binnan project, preserve spoonbill habitat, and develop an alternative plan with local people.
Ignored in the earlier process were important local facts. Chigu Lagoon and Coastal Tainan County directly supports 16,000 jobs in oystering and fishing, and a total of 24,000 jobs in fishing-related industries. This centuries-old fishing culture was also threatened with extinction if Binnan were built, but local fisherman felt powerless. To work with them we designed upside down with few words. They explained to us the local ecosystems upon which they depended. We made maps using John Radke’s latest GIS technology combining native wisdom with professional knowledge of conservation biology. We integrated highly specialized science with local common sense. Government scientists claimed spoonbills occupied only a small area. Fishermen thought the birds foraged over a much larger area in their ponds at night. Malcolm Coulter, the IUCN co-chair of the specialist group on storks, ibis and spoonbills, put the conflicting pieces together. Spoonbills, he concluded, roost during the day when the government scientists studied them (apparently government scientists don’t work much at night), but forage at dawn, dusk and night as far as 30 kilometers from the roosting site.
The government had ignored the fact that spoonbills had to eat as well as sleep. They were providing a bed with no breakfast. No one can believe Chinese scientists would forget eating. This simple piece of interconnected thinking changed everything. It detonated the basis of the government’s environmental impact assessment that Binnan would have no impact on the spoonbill. The oversight (or lie) outraged over one hundred international groups who demanded Binnan be stopped. The local fishermen were increasingly emboldened partly by our international support but more by the realization that their local wisdom of ecosystems and bird behavior was fundamental to the scientific knowledge that would underlie any future plan for their area.
A power map we constructed during a strategy session in Taipei revealed points where we should concentrate our efforts. Power maps are essential fare for change agents. Equally important in making a plan that challenged dominant powers was the geometries of local people’s daily patterns and projected patterns of new economies. Over the last seven years, the Building and Planning Institute at NTU has mapped the existing and projected spatial ecologies of local people. We have mapped the spatial requirements of spoonbills and projected their habitat expansion. We have concluded, for example, that spoonbills will only roost in shallow open waters with an unobstructed view of approximately 500 meters in every direction. Where there exists such kilometer-square open waters, near estuaries, spoonbills can safely roost, sleeping during the day undisturbed by domestic and natural predators. But they only roost there if adequate aquaculture is in close proximity because they forage primarily in adjacent fish ponds, usually within nine kilometers and only when ponds have been emptied of marketable fish and water levels remain at five to 20 centimeters. With such precise attention to spatial geometry and proportion, spoonbills would likely make good designers.
Armed with these geometries, two years ago Shay Boutillier predicted the areas spoonbills were likely to colonize next. Her map of stepping stone habitats projected precisely the lands where spoonbills have begun roosting in large numbers. One new colony is on the site the government proposes for an international airport and free trade industrial zone.
To protect biological and cultural diversity and to implement a plan based on ecotourism, habitat preservation and green industries such as orchid and organic food products, we proposed to the local governments of three coastal counties and have since created a detailed regional plan. This was the product of joint work between National Taiwan University and our college. Although hundreds of students, faculty, and staff have contributed, Pan Pacific leaders in this effort were Jeff Hou and Wenling Tu. This resulted in a National Scenic Area being established to carry out the plan.
Most recently NTU and we have developed detailed urban design plans for several villages to enhance habitat for tourism focusing on wild bird watching and local history. These grassroots plans are at odds with standard global solutions to destroy wetlands for large scale industrial complexes and corporate destinations resorts. Our designs in Chigu are modest interventions, controlled by local people and reflective of particularities of the local place: a viewing station snuggled into a rare mangrove ecology, a community center renovated by local craftsmen with waste products from the fishing industry, and a restaurant ecology center among others. Although each project is small, it is conceived within a big vision of the regional plan that resists authorities that would eliminate biological and cultural diversity. Although our plan represents a vastly different view of the future than that pushed by the global corporate states, it is hardly radical. It is grounded in the everyday life of the local culture and carefully accommodates their desires.
Other agents of change advocate more radical development strategies for sustainability. These visionary futures require significant alterations in lifestyleRichard Register’s plan for calls for consolidating land uses within a century converting the city into self sustaining neighborhoods, eliminating dependence on the car. Anne Riley’s vision would restructure the city and region along streams and watersheds, creating a natural framework which manages storm water ecologically, provides new habitat and recreation space ew urbanists, most notably by Peter Calthorpe, advance a more comprehensive set of strategies for the next American Metropolis hen applied rigorously, they are truly transformative. The strategies entice people to live more sustainably by providing a whole package of benefits through substitutions. They offer access to transit, more community facilities, more mixed-use walkable neighborhoods, and with more access to nature and traditional house types. In exchange, the strategies require modestly higher densities.While characterized as a form of romantic resistanceis a highly sophisticated design alternative to unsustainable suburban sprawl.
Radical sustainability relies on many of its strategies have their beginnings in Wurster Hall, where early concepts have been explored in studios and research projects. It also relies on design advocates push green innovations into the mainstream. In the process the strategies become refined and the designers more sophisticated in their advocacy. Clark Wilson’s strategies for “green streets” are gaining wide support and Anni Tilt, David Arkin, Bruce Brubaker, Larry Strain and many others are the next generation of leading voices in the green building movement which is now being formalized by LEEDS.
Radical sustainability’s success relies on confronting entrenched development patterns and centers of vast power directly, but in the public and private arena. But the power of political and economic interests should not be underestimated. When we were taking the first actions to create a containing greenbelt around Los Angeles, Marcia McNally proposed the designation of core wildlife habitats and urban wilderness recreation centers. Marcia called one such core Big Wild; it was broadly supported throughout Los Angeles, but not in the City Council. To create Big Wild required abandoning a long planned, cross mountain freeway, Reseda-to-the-Sea. Multiple studies indicated the cross mountain route would dump traffic onto an already gridlocked 405 freeway where 10,000 trip desires per rush hour overran capacity of only 7,000, and the cross mountain road would sever a critical wildlife corridor leading to local extinctions. It would not meet transportation objectives and it would do considerable ecological damage.
Why then was the cross mountain freeway strongly supported by the City Council and even Councilmen Marvin Braude an environmentalist Westsider? We found out only after legislation that we supported to terminate the proposed freeway, A.B. 1152, was being debated in the California Legislature. A state senator (who later went to jail) and had real estate partnerships with key staff and/or supporters of Braude and a lawyer for key land speculators in the area near Big Wild was married to one of Braude’s staff members. In any case, an unusually well funded lobby against A.B. 1152 was waged. Where the funds for this effort came from was impossible to determine precisely, but part of the trail led to a powerful coalition of government agents, elected officials, and real estate speculators. It is such shadow coalitions with long accepted conflicts of interest and unfathomable authority that must be confronted for radical sustainability to be advanced.
Likewise our private lives must be transformed. It is too easy to ignore our own roles in unsustainability by rightfully blaming external forces. The external and internal forces must be confronted. Agents for radical sustainability must live more sustainably ourselves. The same can be said for those who advocate justice, deep democracy and diversity.
A Few Modest Suggestions for Wurster
The problems I describe have roots in our present design education and I’d like to conclude with a few suggestions.
First, we must continuously examine the extent to which our design curriculum inculcates the idea that design is separate from politics. Segmented thinking is dangerous and a hindrance to our efficacy. There should be core courses in the politics of design that provide methods for empowerment of our students to operate in the face of power. The courses could address openly issues of the aesthetics, of a social architecture, how divergent cultures can be celebrated in design and bold collective action be garnered. The courses might examine how formal architecture and institutionalized injustices can be analysed as matters of proportion, geometry and form. It might debate the statement of Martin Luther King, Jr. in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” that our concern for order (social and architectural) renders justice secondary.
Second, and to further address the issue of segmented thinking, specialization can never be an excuse for ignorance. With all our specialization, I would plea for more integration and complex systemic thinking with competing world views. I think the best way to do this is with joint, simultaneous degrees. While our college promotes joint degrees and graduates more students with joint degrees than any other in the country, more students should be encouraged to take advantage of this within our college and around campus. It should be made even easier, not onerous.
Third, we need to teach skills of politically intervening design. Every student should know how to draw on their feet, not just in private. Everyone should be able to design upside down, even planners. Everyone should know how to make justice maps, power maps, and to map social ecologies. Everyone should know how to employ phenomenological techniques to capture cultural inspiration about place. These skills should be practiced in service learning studios.
Fourth and finally we should cultivate optimism not cynicism. Cynicism allows designers to retreat into the seemingly safe world of elitism that directly serves the authorities that would stifle true self expression. Optimism coupled with complex integrated thinking, political skill and design ability allows us to be effective design activists; and then to know whom our design serves.
It has been a distinguishing hallmark of our College for six decades. To illustrate the ways in which CED has defined “design activism” would require listing the work of almost every faculty member over the last 40 years. By necessity, has limited the discussion to the work of a few, to exemplify the many ways in which design activism has evolved and changed.
Much has happened since the mid-sixties when Sim Van der Ryn and Sandy Hirshen, with associated architects, designed the “Flash Peak” camps for migrant workers and Sim’s “Integral Urban House” of the mid-1970s articulated the first concepts of sustainability and whole systems integration; when Chris Alexander, Sara Ishikawa et al changed our thinking about the architectural program as a list of spaces with the idea of “a pattern language”; or when Charles Moore, Donlyn Lyndon with Bill Turnbull and Dick Whitaker gave shape to The Sea Ranch challenging the “white” formalism of the east coast with architectural forms responsive to sun, wind and site and a flexible construction system of natural materials that weathered, blending into the setting.
For those of us who reflect on that time of protests and questioning, design activism was synonymous with community design workshops and community participation; but it has a deeper and more critical set of motivations than community service alone. While providing design services to citizens who do not have access to professional consultants and confronting issues of social equity are important motivations, the idea of identifying and critically exploring important issues left out of, or not being addressed in normative practice, is just as fundamental. Design activism is “problem seeking”; it is proactive; it chooses an issue (or set of issues) and explores it (or them) from a critical, sometimes ideological perspective. It uses design to recognize latent potential and make it visible. It explores the “absences” in everyday life and gives them a “presence.” It reveals new ways of seeing the world, and changes existing paradigms.
Some professional practices use “design activism” to first define and then become expert in a new or emerging area of practice, i.e., to create an identifying innovative “brand” for their firm. Yet professional practice also needs to serve a more publicly accepted notion of architecture and development practices. For many firms, design activism can be a high risk proposition which might not be accepted by their regular clients. On the other hand, the critical inquiry essential to design activism is at the core of the academic enterprise. It is both a responsibility and privilege that faculty examine and question the hidden assumptions of design production. Because design activism often challenges existing norms and values, it takes imagination, courage, and the power of persuasion, along with empirical and theoretical evidence to change people’s attitudes and perceptions. In some cases, it takes raising design activism to political action in order to bring about a new vision. In spite of its challenges, the history of design activism at schools of architecture, landscape architecture and planning and, especially at Berkeley, has resulted in remarkable changes to professional practice and the built environment.
At Berkeley, design activism precedes the founding of the College of Environmental Design in 1959. In fact, it was the design activism of the interdisciplinary Telesis Group which envisioned a new future for the Bay Area in a show at the SFMoMA entitled “Telesis: Space for Living” (1940) that planted the seed for a new college. The concept of creating a college which brought together the design disciplines of architecture, landscape architecture and planning (including real estate and finance) to collaborate on designing the built environment grew out of the success of Telesis’s interdisciplinary vision.
Certainly Catherine Bauer Wurster’s role in shaping American public housing policy and her subsequent harsh criticism of its early applications is a model of design activism, as is the impact of Jack Kent’s book, The General Plan on the shaping of planning practices in every municipality in California and the U.S. Tommy Church and then Garrett Eckbo, with his groundbreaking book Landscape for Living changed the idea of the everyday garden by introducing concepts of modern landscape design; and William Wurster is synonymous with the very idea of “everyday modernism,” the notion that simple modern residential design can transform the quality of people’s everyday lives.
Following Berkeley’s lead, design activism today takes many forms in schools around the country. For thirty years the University of Tennessee has developed and offered community design “storefront” services in every major city in Tennessee. Sam Mockbee received the AIA Gold Medal (posthumously) for the work of the Rural Studio at Auburn, bringing design/build services of hauntingly poetic and artistic quality to the rural poor. As a Friedman Visiting Professor, Mockbee and Berkeley students designed, got approved, and built a hauntingly beautiful bus stop for the migrant worker community of Planada in the Central Valley. “Design/Build” has been applied as an effective form of design activism at many schools, with superb examples at Yale and the University of Kansas, which won a recent NCARB Award for bridging school and practice with a stunningly built model for infill housing. In many ways, design activism has been most successful in the form of “community design charrettes” (Washington, Michigan, Maryland, and Minnesota.) Often the charrettes address important themes like “smart growth” (Maryland), “retrofitting the suburb” (Georgia Institute of Technology), or new design strategies for revitalizing older “strip” developments (ASU). All of these examples owe an intellectual debt to the original design activism of the Mayor’s Institute for City Design, in both initial conception at UVA and its regional applications at Berkeley and Minnesota, among others. In all of these examples design activism has involved proactive problem seeking, using design to visualize new ways of conceiving a problem. While design activism has grown around the country, how has this tradition, so central to CED’s identity, been transforming as older faculty mature and younger faculty reinterpret the tradition?
The lead articles in this issue of Frameworks highlight the work of LAEP Professor Walter Hood, including his collaboration with DCRP Lecturer Deborah McCoy on the Y-Plan, as well as the on-going design activism of LAEP Professor Randy Hester in Los Angeles and Taiwan, of alumnus Frederic Schwartz, in addition to an essay by Donlyn Lyndon. But new forms of design activism stretch across the faculty in all three departments, from the senior faculty to new assistant professors. In City and Regional Planning, Chair John Landis is preparing a major analysis of the potential for “infill” housing on under or undeveloped sites throughout the state. The study goes beyond a typical land use analysis; it examines the role of different building types and the design potential of each site.
Professor David Dowall is developing a major initiative to examine the economic and design needs of metropolitan infrastructure for the state’s projected growth to fifty million people in 2020. The impact on the design of communities will require the development of new policies and scenarios in urban design. The goal is to make California’s investment and design trade-offs visible.
In urban design, Allan Jacobs and Elizabeth Macdonald, continue to transform our understanding (along with those of traffic engineers) regarding the multifunctional value of “Great Streets.” At the same time Chair Peter Bosselmann continues the tradition of the Environmental Simulation Laboratory (begun with Donald Appleyard) by illustrating how 10,000 new housing units could be accommodated in downtown Oakland.
With the largest number of design faculty, the Department of Architecture has the widest range of design activism. At the top ranks, Professor Stanley Saitowitz has continued to explore and define stripped-down, yet elegant modernism that delivers a richness in materials while inviting a flexibility and multiplicity of uses. His Yerba Buena Lofts is the most noted example and illustrates how this language can reference, yet not imitate, the traditional context and fabric of the city. At the mid ranks, Associate Professor Ravee Choksombatchai’s work defines and delivers a sensuality that celebrates the body’s experience of space and material, while Associate Professor Renee Chow has redefined our understanding of suburban space in her book Suburban Space: The Fabric of Dwelling (2002). Associate Professor Jill Stoner’s design/build studio has added permanent interior architecture installations at a housing development by Patrick Kennedy, injecting new life into the public spaces of the project. Finally, Associate Professor Rene Davids is bringing the issue of “architectural detailing” into the foreground of the design imagination by initiating a series of publications entitled, “AS-BUILT.” Their purpose is to increase the vocabulary of architectural expression in schools of architecture, to bring back the “art of the detail.”
A remarkable group of new faculty at the assistant professor rank are breaking new ground in the use of computer aided design and manufacturing (CAD/CAM) to explore new design directions. Mark Anderson has focused on the “art of construction” using CAD/CAM with students to design and build “swell,” a dynamic volumetric circulation installation in front of Wurster Hall, and the most recent design build project “Monster Mudder; Tinkers’ Workshop Community Fabrication Courtyard” on the Berkeley waterfront. Lisa Iwamoto has used CAD/CAM, employing computer controlled cutting machines at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory; to design/build installations at important locations in Wurster Hall, as well as a volumetric lighting installation for an opening at one of SFMoMA’s galleries. With her partner, Craig Scott, she has also captured the ephemeral processes of nature in a project entitled the “Fog House.” Anthony Burke has developed and experimented with an all-digital studio to explore dynamic spatial transformations which the computer enables beyond our normal perception and imagination. He brings the critical questioning of design activism which must always ask what purpose do these new spatial configurations serve?
While the current work at CED is a long way from the early examples of design activism, it shares the excitement of critical inquiry and discovery from the tradition out of which it springs. But today’s design activism is not only a commitment to inquiry in the academic process; it is also a commitment to implementation, thereby creating the bridge between thought and deed, and driving the design process to realization. This continues to be the privilege and responsibility of the faculty, and inspires the best from our students.