Challenge, Collaborate and Create : A process of empowerment in design

Published: Sunday 3 October 2021

By Jacque Allen, Education Consultant, Cognition Education and Chair of Learning Environments New Zealand 

As a LEA member and the current Chair of Learning Environments New Zealand, I sent through an RSVP to the JEDI Happy Hour in September 2021, a free member’s event organised by A4LE. I thought I knew what I had signed up for, a 7am (NZST) online event with Christopher Locke leading us all through his presentation ‘Let's Discuss Racialized Spaces’. What I didn’t expect was to be challenged about existing design and to have the opportunity to interact in a breakout room with architects, educators and policy developers. The presentation and discussion was hard hitting with concepts like, double consciousness and realities around red bricks triggering trauma in adults in relation to their education, as well as ideas like ‘Lawscape vs atmosphere’. 

Christopher Locke is an architect based in LA, USA. He is one of the co-founders of Designing in Colour, (DCo), their mission aims to ‘diversify the way architecture is taught and practiced, to amplify marginalized communities who’ve been historically silenced and erased throughout the design process’. I noticed very quickly that out of the 200 participants online, I was one of the few educators in the virtual room and one of even less women participating, also of note there was a lack of diversity across the board.

Christopher presented in a passionate and well-informed way, speaking of social justice, spatial justice and design justice. He lay out the challenge to ‘Design with Action’ and to ‘unbuild racism’. Challenging the traditional design process, which is intrenched in ‘white male’ design dating back hundreds of years, to now an approach of interacting with clients to create spaces that empower all and promote sustainability. 

Christopher quoted Sir Winston Churchill in his speech at the House of Lords, October 28, 1943 - “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.” This quote could not be any truer in how we live, interact, and feel, whether it be in a learning setting, on a sidewalk, in the Town Square, or in a family home. Christopher called on us to look beyond form and function to consider how form follows function vs form follows fear. The images shown throughout the presentation made references to light being denied for students in learning spaces as well as urban structures that are hurtful and hostile. The reality that a single red brick can encapsulate trauma of a child’s education filled with fear and lack of voice. He showed examples of ‘redlining a district’ and because of this policy the implementation of lesser services for those communities. 

Christopher also introduced the idea of a double consciousness, “the sense of looking at oneself through the eyes of others”, Du Bois, 1903. He spoke of his own experience of ‘how I am and how I am perceived’ and the reality of who is designing for my identity, for my culture or my language? To counter the traditional way of designing and planning the DCo team design from the margins, using the expertise and voices of those often excluded. DCo live their principles knowing that empowerment is the key in all interactions, they implement ‘Designing by Response’. They hold educational events, and promote this innovative way to design. Christopher and his team are asking the hard questions constantly, organising ways to connect, and creating safe spaces for open discussions and identifying and/or generate solutions that are culturally aware, empathetic and responsible. Christopher wanted everyone to consider three words:- challenging, collaborating, and creating. These three words were not only for designers but also for all the people involved in helping make spaces and places a reality.

With the opportunity to have a more intimate discussion the 200 participants were divided into groups of 6, this is the surprise I was not expecting. To be able to talk to architects from Mexico, Canada, Alaska and the Mid-West was an event in itself.  As a New Zealander I was engrossed in the miss directed racial injustices that are part of the American history, not something often taught in New Zealand schools. My breakout group went deep into discussing cultural awareness, or lack of it, the multigenerational trauma of many indigenous peoples, and how empowerment is key. The six of us agreed that it all starts with not only gathering voice but acting authentically on it, this could enable designers to create spaces and places that are liberating, pleasing, accepting, empathetic and honour the sense of culture and community for all. 

As the event progressed groups reported back about many aspects, the importance of natural light, having dual purpose design as one of the outcomes, the example of bollards in place to stop cars accessing walkways can also be safe seating for students waiting for parents to pick them up. Participants also highlighted ‘single cell classroom’ design being intrenched in control and how open spaces for learning amplifies collective freedom, however, it can also pose challenges like lockdown procedures or social distancing during a pandemic. 

As the JEDI Happy Hour event came to an end, I was left with a few key ideas planted by Christopher Locke; 1. In what ways do designers contribute to ongoing hostile design? 2. What does it look like when voice is acted upon authentically in the design process? and 3. If we are designing from the margins, what could that look like? These and many other questions are not easy to answer, however, being part of Learning Environments Australasia gives us the opportunity to challenge, collaborate and create together, and I believe that is what Christopher is hoping for, for us all to start the conversation, after all it was in the event title ‘Let's Discuss Racialized Spaces’.

Article written by Jacque Allen, Education Consultant, Cognition Education and Chair of Learning Environments New Zealand