I think that Lawrence Lessig makes a strong argument for the agency architecture has in establishing social norms, and in its ability to be utilized as an extension of law to bypass an otherwise formal legislative process. The example of Robert Moses utilizing bridge dimensions as a mechanism to inhibit African Americans the access to public beaches, because of their reliance on public transportation, clearly demonstrates the ability for the built environment to be manipulated for the wrong reason. This considered, how then is a designer/architect/urban planner, with no bad intentions, to operate knowingly, given the potential agency for either greater good, or greater harm as a result of an executed contribution to the built environment. As a graduate student in the architecture department, we often have to struggle with these very questions. I want to talk about two different conceptual projects, both executed during a design studio while at MIT. Both also, executed during the “core” sequence, which can be alternatively described as a set of foundational design studios within the Masters curriculum. The projects, proposed designs for a YMCA in the Bronx, and a “sustainable” winery for a drought ridden Valle de Guadalupe of northern Mexico, where the majority of the countries wine (a process that consumes a lot of water) is produced.
I like these projects for this particular discussion, because they both required consideration of existing cultural norms, socio-economic parameters, and in the case of the project in Mexico, consideration for the environmental consequences and potentials of the proposed design. In both these project there are similar issues, issues that I think are inherent in the production of architecture. Namely, that in a semesters time, we are hard pressed to be able to become experts on either Mexican wine culture, or the particularities of the economic and political struggles in the Bronx. We probably aren’t the best positioned to address some of these issues at large. That said, we are best positioned to design, propose, and execute an architecture, yet our architecture is intrinsically linked with all of these other issues.
Our studio courses are additionally constrained by the determinate length of each semester, as well as the pedagogical agenda of the department, as well as the regulations set forth by those bodies that accredit the professional degree program. Yet even in professional practice, architects and urban planners have to negotiate projects that require consideration of issues/problems that far exceed the capabilities of the designer, but also require a constructed thing that can only be executed by this very same person. So as a designer how am I to begin to negotiate a design, and its potential impact. In both of these academic projects, the class was able to draw from outside experts, in addition to undergoing a period of collective research and investigation. We had representatives from the New York YMCA, who gave us inside knowledge on the functions, and needs a neighborhood “Y,” and for the project in Mexico, we met with wine makers, toured facilities, and had lectures by experts on the water shortage crisis. In both cases, much of this was a part of scheduled travel, where we were able to be on site.
For both of these projects, there was no “concrete” consequence, a building was not constructed as a result of the studio project. What it did offer, was alternative design solutions that were later shared with the expert representatives of each project. The New York Y for example, was hoping to collect the body of “design research” as a way of expanding their views of what their future YMCA facilities could be. These projects have taught me a lot about what I don’t know, and on this issue of never ending lack of expertise as it relates to the inevitable context of real life architecture projects. What I have been able to take from this is the following, that we can always collaborate with experts outside of our immediate disciplinary bubble, and in fact, we really need to in order to propose design solutions that are both informed and sensitive to the very context they are being proposed for.