Diversity, America’s cities, public safety hot topics at Day 2 of A’22
The Soul Children of Chicago, an acclaimed youth choir, delivered an energetic start to Day 2 of A’22. The group performed four songs to warm up the crowd for the impending keynote panel conversation.
Moderated by Lee Bey, a Chicago-based photographer, author, lecturer, and architecture critic, the conversation featured renowned architects Vishaan Chakrabarti, FAIA, Renée Cheng, FAIA, and Jeanne Gang, FAIA, discussing how architects impact America’s big cities today, diversity in the field, the role of architecture in public safety, and much more.
Prior to the panel discussion AIA President Dan Hart, FAIA, and CEO Lakisha Woods delivered the past three years of AIA Gold Medals to their recipients. The 2020 award was given to Marlon Blackwell, FAIA, the 2021 award went to Edward Mazria, FAIA, and the 2022 award was given to Angela Brooks, FAIA, and Lawrence Scarpa, FAIA.
An opening address by Hart explored how architects are stewards for the present and future. As stewards, he said, architects have the responsibility to “do good while we do well.”
“Being an architect today requires technical acumen, emotional intelligence and empathy, professional integrity, the ability to envision and realize meaningful, positive change, and an overarching instinct and focus to bring it all together, holistically,” said Hart, noting the difficulty of balancing these goals.
“But it will not be these challenges that define us, it will be our response to them,” he said. "How we choose to advance efforts to break down barriers and build bridges to a better, safer, healthier, and more sustainable future will define us today and shape how we are remembered tomorrow.”
Bey opened the panel by asking each panelists' assessment of the “big American city right now,” and what they think an architect's role in it is, especially as the pandemic forced us to rethink cities, suburbs, and rural areas and the functionality of spaces in those areas.
“When thinking about cities I’ve been thinking a lot about capital and capitalism, value and consumerism. The pandemic has opened more possibilities when it comes to cities, mobility is a part of cities now that many of us don’t need to be in cities, so what does it mean when you choose to be in that city,” asked Cheng, the John and Rosalind Jacobi Family Endowed Dean of the College of Built Environments at the University of Washington.
“How do you create value as architects and planners in cities that are questioning the role of office space? We saw parks and outdoor spaces gaining in value and [being] used in unique ways,” Cheng said.
Chakrabarti, founder and creative director of PAU (Practice for Architecture and Urbanism), said that following the September 11 terrorist attacks there was a lot of talk about the death of cities, which ultimately never came to pass. He thinks that similarly, “histrionics” regarding the pandemic’s impact on cities are overblown.
“Throughout human history, people have gathered because we like to be with each other,” he said. “I think cities are now for the people who love them. This goes beyond the big city. I think communities are for people who love them. We need to work on creating quality of life, affordable housing, great parks, great schools, that make people want to be together and believe in the collective act of community.”
Affordable housing and a skyrocketing urban housing market have proven to be a challenge for making cities livable for everyone who wants to dwell in one.
There are things cities can do to drive the housing market, according to Cheng, including changing zoning codes, changing density, and adding transit. “Architects should be involved in how all of that plays out.”
Chakrabarti said he is looking at obsolete office buildings in Midtown Manhattan and seeing whether they can be converted into affordable housing. “We’re all working with table scraps when it comes to affordable housing,” he said.
“In 1984, when this country elected a president where only one state didn’t vote for that president, it led to the 1986 tax reform that led to the fact that we can’t build affordable housing here in the way that we used to,” Chakrabarti said. “No other industrialized nation does this. We are supposed to have a public commitment to housing, and we don’t. We are seeing the aftermath of when we decided to be the United States of tax cuts.”
Bey followed up asking the panel about the divide between rural areas and cities, to which Gang, founding principal of Studio Gang, emphasized that this alleged divide is unhelpful.
“We can’t think of a city as a standalone thing; it relies on all of these things outside of its boundaries to exist,” said Gang. “We need to think about how we are an ecosystem and how we depend on each other. We don’t even have the language yet to describe what is happening, which isn’t just a city with rural areas around it.”
Gang said that thinking in unifying ways may even help curb the “political divide” that we see today.
Diversity in Architecture
The panelists agreed that making the field of architecture a more diverse place, and continually improving the culture of architecture, will benefit the industry in the long and short terms.
“There are so many brains at work that aren’t even thinking that architecture is a potential career, or they have the agency to be an architect,” said Cheng. “Making this profession attractive to people like the kids on stage [The Soul Children of Chicago]. They knew they were singing to architects. How many have met an architect or thought about it as a career? Our job is to make it accessible.”
Gang agreed, citing the strength a firm gains from having a diverse set of backgrounds across the racial and economic spectrum, as well as hiring from a widened spectrum of schools. She also referenced a recent “design leadership” program her firm did with teens in Memphis for a project on the city’s waterfront.
“They got to work with us and see what it’s like to be an architect. They told us what they wanted on the waterfront; it was very valuable. There’s things like that, things that aren’t in our guidelines, that we can just do if we want to do,” she said.
Chakrabarti said that architects “aren’t embarrassed enough” by the “abysmal” state of affairs regarding diversity in the field.
“Less than five percent of licensed architects are African American. In most schools, over 50% of the students are women. By the time they hit their forties, many have dropped out of that profession. That isn’t true in banking, it isn’t true in law, it isn’t true in medicine, and we haven’t dealt with this.”
He said in 2005 he was told by a “very famous legacy firm partner” that he’d never be partner because he wasn’t white.
“If people know that about our profession and understand how poorly women and people of color are treated, how can we expect bright young people to want to be part of this profession? That has to change,” he said.
As mass shootings are ever more prevalent in our society, Bey asked the panel about the role architecture has in public safety.
“The guns are the problem, and not the architecture,” said Gang to prolonged applause from the crowd.
“There’s a lot of research that shows that more activity, more communication in buildings, more visibility, and more public space reduces anxiety and crime in neighborhoods. We should be investing in this, and we know how to do that as architects,” she said.
Chakrabarti agreed and said that the front line is often moved. “This conversation frightens me. Schools are big buildings. People used to talk about the opposite, about turning them into community centers, but now we want to turn them into bunkers with one entrance. It’s madness.”
Cheng added that architects need to be “humble enough to realize what we can and can’t do.” If architects are advising and bringing data related to safety, there could be a new conversation around the issues of public safety. “We can hopefully be at the table presenting alternatives,” she said.