This text first appeared in “Ethical Redevelopment Salon Sessions: Written Reflections,” published by The University of Chicago and Place Lab. It documents our experience participating in the year-long Salon Series and our ambitions for architects to promote equity within the urban environment.
Learn more about Place Lab’s work and the 9 Principles of Ethical Redevelopment here.
“A project taps into a particular kind of power when it refuses to be singular, when it takes up space and assembles believers from disparate corners.”
– Ethical Redevelopment Principal #8: Constellations
Chicago is a city distinguished by bold architectural innovations throughout its history, but perhaps even more so, it is known as “the city that works.” For all its visionary zeal, Chicago is also a city that gets stuff done, through whatever means necessary. This combination of ambition and no-nonsense pragmatism is productive and problematic. Projects push forward while often foregoing critical reflection about the greater world(s) that they affect.
As architects, we often bring projects to fruition that have already been shaped by policy and development teams. We recognize the discrepancies between a project’s good intentions and its realized results, and that policy, financing, environmental accountability, among other factors, contribute to these discrepancies. Systemic factors, on the scale of practice, the profession, and the state of our country obstinately resist change, and the biggest obstacle we often face as architects is the limited scope in which we operate to challenge the modus operandi of the status quo.
While many of Place Lab’s 9 Principles of Ethical Redevelopment play into our work, Constellations and Platforms best exemplified our ambitions for the Salon series. How might we expand the architect’s role in the world as civic leaders? And how might the many constellations of stakeholders invested in the built environment—builders and bureaucrats, tenants and building operators, artists and organizers, neighbors and students and teachers—be better equipped to articulate their priorities, assign weight to guiding values, and enact agency and accountability in the future?
The Salons gave us a chance to be more reflective and projective in how we work and collaborate with a diverse array of stakeholders. Through our participation, Landon Bone Baker Architects (LBBA) looked inward at our firm’s design process and practice model to challenge how we operate within the traditional boundaries of the profession. We explored how our projects could be better informed by design research, collaborative dialogues, and post-occupancy accountability. And we worked to redefine the scope of our services—both to our clients and the communities where we work—to be better ethical redevelopers.
For Salon #5 Design, Place Lab invited LBBA to present our approach to “good design is for everyone,” asking questions about what makes “good design,” “beauty,” and “desirability” within the context of developing multifamily and affordable housing.Perhaps ironically, design as aesthetic is not a topic of conversation we often have as a full-service architectural firm; instead we talk about design as a tool for empowerment, sustainability, ownership, and contributing ongoing investment. Our team met several times beforehand to discuss and define what beauty means to us, especially as a matter of ethics.
While the constitutions of beauty are fairly subjective, many of the responses we surveyed centered on some measurement of success. When we then asked the office for definitions of beauty and success, several themes emerged that shared similarities to the 9 Principles of Ethical Redevelopment—Sustainability (Place over Time and Repurpose and Re-Propose); Access (Stack, Leverage + Access); Ownership (Platforms and Engaged Participation); Context (Constellations); and Delight (Design). These values were then incorporated into our Goals Matrix and developed into the project scope through roleplaying and testing.
Our five-person team alternated attendance through the series and would “Report-Back” to the office through the LBBA Wednesday Lunch Series. These Report-Back lunches also doubled as workshops to develop a new toolkit, or Goals Matrix, that would facilitate project discussions with our clients while also measuring the project’s impact against its intended goals. Previously, our methods for incorporating workshops, research, and Post-Occupancy Evaluation into projects have been tactical over strategic—operating as disparate parts between various projects and even phases. Instead, we wanted the information collected through the Goals Matrix to ensure ongoing investment for owners, residents, and communities, while also being universal enough to contribute to shared knowledge and learning.
To better share our experience of the Salons with the rest of the office, we created the “Ethical Redevelopment Salon Report” that included the following six prompts:
1. Brief overview of presented project and key takeaways.
2. General feedback from the group. Strengths/Weaknesses of the project.
3. List reoccurring ideas/themes discussed throughout the session.
4. Identify information applicable to our project.
5. List connections made.
6. Action Items.
For each of our Reports, as we considered applicable information to our project (Item 4 above), we often responded with many of the unanswerable questions asked during the Salon. These conversations made apparent how many Salon Members were facing similar issues on how to define, create, and measure meaningful engagement and change. In VOLUME 17: Content Management, Jeffrey Inaba compares our experience of architecture to our modern-day experience of Content Management (or how we collect, organize, and share digital information):
Like Content Management, Architecture arranges information and objects into a navigable environment using technology to configure the environment’s spaces and circulation routes. It embodies the values of the presented content, setting the tone for the visitor’s experience through the design of the public interface.
As Inaba suggests above—how we practice and who we include through the process inevitably tells a story of our values. At Salon #8, Constellations, we had the honor of hearing the stories of police torture survivors who are a part of the Chicago Torture Justice Center. One goal of this Salon was exploring ways to tell the victims’ stories, so they are never erased or forgotten. From LBBA’s Constellations Report, Item 4 of our Report simply reads: “Understand the injustices that face the communities we serve.”
Luckily human-centered design and design thinking are gaining prominence as a means to ensure successful, innovative, and ethical work. The range of Salon members, from artists to organizers to developers, represent a fuller picture of those working in the design of our cities and places, including those overlooked and limited in agency. While disparate in practice, Salon members were together in our ambition for more ethical practice, and therein together in our struggle. As architects, it has been wonderful to participate with so many other actors to grapple with the built environment. As futurists, it’s invigorating to envision alternatives to the existing—to articulate what world could be. And we are optimistic about the power of collective and diverse voices to leverage Chicago’s persistent pragmatism to build a more mindful city.