You Are Not Your User

// In pursuit of models for social impact design & community engagement in practice //

  • "We Have Good Taste, But There's a Gap"

    After three consecutive posts on the 'need' for a greater awareness of community engagement, or design for the public good, I thought I'd transition instead to one of the secret weapons in the toolbox of community engagement: storytelling.

    When I was in architecture school, my final design presentation was given to an audience that included developers, policy makers, architectural professors, my peers, and our 'starchitect' instructor who had flown in for the week.

    What I remembered most about my personal presentation was that the architecture itself was not what I decided to present on, but instead I proposed a strategy for architecture to be merely a resultant in support of an urban design strategy that sought to enhance a small Kansas town's economic resiliency through the redevelopment of a brownfield site into a resort for experiential tourism between LA and Chicago.


    To me, it was about the people, the opportunity to provide jobs, and the connection to the landscape. Immediately after I finished the presentation, one of the developers that had been invited to the review jumped up to proclaim that this was a project he would invest in. It was a nice compliment, but hardly a ringing endorsement for a final review, and the discussion soon progressed into a fair architectural criticism.

    What stands with me most from that day, however, was what my professor told me, "Matt, this is not architecture."

    And in a way, he was right.

    Architecture, especially as taught in school, speaks to traditional notions of design as the primary focus. As students, we imagine that the greatest designers will presumably become the greatest of architects. If only our flashing details could be a little more refined, our inverted trusses more centered on the columns, our bathrooms more accessible from the core, and our renderings layered with more cloudy lens flare, only then could our designs indicate that we were formed more fully as an architect, and in preparation for the rigors of the profession ahead.

    I'd like to take a moment though, and speak to what it is I think resonated that day with the developer who jumped out of his seat, wanting to 'invest' in what was otherwise an average architectural design. What I presented was less about what I was designing to be built (a resort nestled into a ridge leading to open space in the Tallgrass Prairie in the Flint Hills of Kansas), nor was it how I proposed to do it (designed through a kit of parts that could be easily delivered to site and constructed without the need for skilled labor).

    Instead, I presented a story.

    I asked them to imagine what it must be like for a visitor from Japan to arrive in Kansas during a cross-country journey, and to gaze upon completely open landscape for the first time in their lives, overcome with emotion. This wasn't simply a nice fiction - it had been shared with us by our host at the site.

    The goal of the design was to capture that human experience, and to convey it in such a manner that suggested architecture could do more than simply propose a refined design pinned to a wall, and instead generate value in support of a local industry that in turn would directly support the surrounding community.

    I was trying to get at the 'Why'.

    Overall, it was a good lesson my professor shared. Yes, the design left much to be desired. Yes, storytelling alone would not make me a good architect.

    However, in the years since, I've observed that good design alone does not make a project successful either. No amount of flashing can resonate with a neighborhood whose homes were torn down to make way for a new development. No material palette can convince city hall that this building should pass their planning and zoning committee. No rendering can change the minds of a community that was otherwise left out of a design process that has serious implications on their lives.

    When I advocate for greater community engagement in the field of architecture, I'm speaking about bridging the gap between token representation and community empowerment. To bridge that gap successfully, it requires that the architect first actively listen. By actively, I don't mean hosting a public forum where we record meeting notes and then submit them - as if that brief communication was the depth of engagement possible - all the while avoiding our profession's inherent fear of 'design by committee'. I mean taking the time to invite all of the stakeholders affected, forming a consensus of community values (not design), and then demonstrating that their input was incorporated into the design process through creative representation back to them for their benefit, to serve as both a celebrated benchmark in the design process and as an appreciation for their collaboration.

    This type of engagement has the potential to generate momentum, where the community itself can advocate for a project, because in its success they see their own. This is something architecture can aspire to, as a tool to reshape our communities and catalyze sustainable growth.

    But in order to do so, it requires architects to stop preoccupying themselves solely on matters of design. It also requires us to take the time to tell a story.

    Here are a few of my favorite examples:

    Beyond The Building by MASS Design Group

    If You Build It

    Citizen Architect: Samuel Mockbee and the Spirit of the Rural Studio

    BC Workshop: Community Design Workshop

    Next Rail KC by BNIM

    Ice Cube Celebrates The Eames

    THE GAP by Ira Glass

  • To Hell with Good Intentions

    If you have any sense of responsibility at all, stay with your riots here at home. Work for the coming elections: You will know what you are doing, why you are doing it, and how to communicate with those to whom you speak. And you will know when you fail. If you insist on working with the poor, if...

  • Values-Based Design

    You don’t know what you don’t knowYou don’t know until you measureYou don’t measure what you don’t valueYou don’t value what you don’t measureThe above is an adage that relates to business management. It indicates an awareness of the values we place on anything of consequence in...

  • Wisdom From the Field

    This is the first post of, what I hope, will be a series of posts exploring the nature of architecture as it relates to social justice in current design practice. Thank you for taking the time to read this, and if this is of interest to you, you can respond to me here or on twitter -- MattWhere...

  • ×Search in:

About this Blog

The practice of Architecture, both the ideals it cherishes & the business model it has gradually adopted, is evolving. Globally, more people live in cities than do not. The 'Future Cities', those bucolic heterotopias we were promised, are not here. Instead, we are growing into a world where shelter, environmental justice, clean drinking water, & other basic human rights are negotiated for. How do we, as architects, plan to address those needs? This blog will explore answers to those questions.

Authored by:

Recent Entries

Please wait... loading