On September 14, designers, journalists, educators, and civic leaders from Anchorage to Australia met in Chicago for this year's Design Matters Conference, presented by the Association of Architecture Organizations and co-sponsored by APA.
Ahead of the official kick-off of the Chicago Architecture Biennial, discussions focused on engaging a diverse general public with the built environment.
Attendees were treated to a sneak peek of the Biennial's "Make New History" exhibit at the Cultural Center before its official opening on Saturday. They also heard from Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Jennifer Masengarb, the Chicago Architecture Foundation's director of research and interpretation and the author of the Biennial Gallery Guide. Both framed the Biennial as a critical tool in raising awareness and understanding of urban design.
"This year's Chicago Architecture Biennial will feature another outstanding lineup of exhibitions, installations, programming, and discussions in communities throughout the city of Chicago," Emanuel told attendees at the Biennial press conference. "We welcome the opportunity to provoke discussion on the future of architecture, especially among students and aspiring architects, by looking to Chicago's innovative past for inspiration."
According to Masengarb, more than 2,000 area students are expected at the Cultural Center this fall. Armed with her Gallery Guide, they will learn how to "look and see" via suggested questions that make the exhibits — and their built environment — more "relatable, approachable, relevant, and accessible."
Ricardo Bak Gordon, designer of the Desenhos de Trabalho (Working Drawing) exhibit at the Chicago Architecture Biennial, with Ayrika Craig, community outreach coordinator at the Chicago Architecture Foundation. Photo by Lindsay Nieman.
The conference keynote came from Amy Liu, vice president and director of the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institute. Addressing a room packed with rapt listeners, she shared strategies for creating inclusive economic development alongside rapid urbanization, changes in demographics, and climate change — all while calling for a redefinition of the American Dream, one that better reflects the country's diversity.
Friday afternoon's sessions focused on education and inclusion, including a panel on youth engagement led by Gabrielle Lyon, CAF's vice president of education and experiences and coauthor of No Small Plans. The Center for Urban Pedagogy's Christine Gaspar talked about translating complicated policies into easy-to-understand art and toolkits that promote civic engagement among teenagers in underrepresented communities. Through CUP's creative education programs, students can "talk to decision makers, hold them accountable, and maybe even become those decision makers."
The day ended at APA's Chicago office with a frank conversation on — and call to action for — racial diversity in the allied design professions. The session started with an interactive question and answer portion, with 98 percent of attendees agreeing that adequate resources for inclusion are not available. Panelists promoted the idea of integrating architecture and planning education into the K-12 curriculum to make would-be designers aware of the field. APA President Cynthia Bowen, AICP, pointed to the success of Metropolis, a planning curriculum developed for elementary students with John Martoni, a third grade teacher and planner in the Bay Area.
Panelists also stressed the importance of groups like the National Organization of Minority Architects, which creates support systems that might not exist at individual firms, as well as extracurricular programs. Michael Ford, co-founder of the Urban Arts Collective, has received national attention for The Hip Hop Architecture Camp, an intensive, week-long experience "designed to introduce under-represented youth to architecture, urban planning, creative place making, and economic development through the lens of hip hop culture."
Moderator Steven Lewis, urban design director for the central district of the city of Detroit's planning and development department, closed out the conference with some homework: He urged attendees to do something with what they learned — and discuss it all with a diverse group of peers over dinner.
Top image: Lucie Murray and Catherine Staniland from New London Architecture compare the walkability of Amsterdam and London at the Chicago Architecture Biennial. Photo by Lindsay Nieman.
About the Author
Lindsay Nieman is an assistant editor at APA.