Design Activism

“Design Activism” changes the way we see and understand our world. It is revelatory and transformative in people’s lives.
Planada Bus Stop, Central Valley, CA. (2005 view) constructed by architecture students in Arch. 201, Spring 1998. Instructors Sam Mockbee and Chris Cal ott. (bottom) Construction under the direction of Sam Mockbee, 1998. Originally, Mockbee and the students thought they would be building farm worker housing, but the community wanted a connection-a bus station. What they got is a micro-climate- a poetic diagram of their place in the region, which has garnered their continuing involvement with a new mural, a new landscape, and careful maintenance.

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.

S.W.E.l.l. !Scissor Wheels Elastic Lumber Lever) installation located in front of Wurster Hall designed and built by architecture graduate students in Mark Anderson's Arch. 201, Spring 2003. A dymanic frame which flexes to the weight of human passage standing in front of the tough ration al frame of Wurster Hall.
S.W.E.L.L. (Scissor Wheels Elastic Lumber
Lever) installation located in front of Wurster Hall
designed and built by architecture graduate students
in Mark Anderson’s Arch. 201, Spring 2003.
A dynamic frame which flexes to the weight of
human passage standing in front of the tough rational
frame of Wurster Hall.

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.

"Telesis: Space for Living"
“Telesis: Space for Living”, an exhibition by the Telesis Group, SFMoMA (1940)

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.