Aligning Architecture with Social Change

By Jessica Kung Dreyfus

The first step of design is listening. As we design spaces and places as individuals, how are calls for systemic change galvanizing communities, place makers, and the schools at Yale? On October 28th 2020, Yale Women in Architecture and the Yale Schwarzman Center came together to create a virtual nexus to learn and discover how women in the fields of architecture, the performing arts, urban ecology, and environmental studies are creating spaces that actively and compassionately engage the public sphere.

Celia Imrey and Lilly Agutu of Yale Women in Architecture opened the discussion. They introduced the mission of Yale Women in Architecture to create a network and platform for pivotal conversations around the creation of our built environment. Jennifer Harrison Newman, Associate Artistic Director of Yale Schwarzman Center, followed by introducing the natural alliance between the two organizations. As the Yale Schwarzman Center prepares for a 2021 opening, Newman demonstrated their values-forward approach — strategically creating the aura of the building as a place for cross-disciplinary conversations in advance of its brick and mortar arrival.

I was fortunate to have met Newman and the Yale Schwarzman Center through my work with Sozo Artists at the 2nd Annual Community Summit in 2019 co-facilitated with Rika Iino and Marc Bamuthi Joseph. One of the many conversations that came out was how to bring the Indigenous communities of Yale into the process of healing, inaugurating, and ultimately relaunching the historical heart of the campus — the Commons. I had proposed a project entitled Between Site and Psyche that would engage the Indigenous communities of Yale in the process of placemaking by giving them the opportunity to tell their story through land healing rituals. The future building would bear witness, listen to their living geometry and acknowledge and reflect it back through a moment of sacred geometry in architectural ornament.

As the events of 2020 began to rock our fragile world, I became active in the Yale Women in Architecture community. As Yale Architecture alumni came together to look at how the built environment can respond to social change, naturally the threads of the conversation joined. I shared with Celia my nascent proposal with the Yale Schwarzman Center and ended up being invited by YWA to create a larger panel discussion around the topic of Architecture and social change.

The result of the invitation was an inspiring journey into the depth of talent, ethical leadership, and stunning design solutions represented by the Yale Women of Architecture community. Through numerous conversations with a diverse group of practitioners I discovered how the cutting edge was responding. I ended up highlighting the work of three women whose voices both came together around shared themes and expanded in different ways through diverse pedagogical approaches and social avenues.

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El Barrio Bait Station, Jacobschang Architects

Sari Chang, principal of Jacobschang architects, began the panel discussion with the El Barrio Bait Station project above 100th street. Her unique background as an actress brings a larger scope to how the architect can be a “principal” actor. Venturing out of the traditional lane of architecture, Chang sits on numerous community boards and comfortably inhabits roles not traditionally thought to be within the realm of architectural practice. Thus, her natural disposition to participate in larger conversations generated projects that would not normally cross the path of an architect. I found this to be a particularly powerful insight into how socially responsible projects get built. Her unique ability to respond and engage the public sphere as a citizen became, for her, the seed for architecture that aligns with social change.

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Jacobschang Architects

From a formal perspective, Chang’s design for the Bait station presents a fascinating solution to the edge condition. A statuesque and poetic moment along the guard rail, the station provides an eloquent reflection of how a marginalized community can be met along the edge of the river. The Bait station acts as a punctuation mark along an otherwise monotonous edge, drawing attention to the fishermen who lean against the fence with their fishing rods. The station is an elegant architectural gesture, an example of how a humble fence can respond to a social need by growing an extra forearm to help locals prepare bait. The next presenter brought the conversation from a local scale to an international scale.

Naomi Darling Architecture

Naomi Darling, principal of Naomi Darling Architecture and Five College Associate Professor of Sustainable Architecture, presented an opportunity she created for social change through the creation of cross-disciplinary curriculum. Bringing together her focus on sustainable architecture with her collaboration with anthropologist Sue Darlington, Darling and Darlington led a year long journey for Five College students to Nan, Thailand. The class had the unique opportunity to directly engage the local community, designing a seed library, market, cafe and gift shop for the Joko Learning Center. The Joko Learning Center is an NGO addressing deforestation, environmental degradation and economic hardship that results from industrial agriculture. They support social and environmental change by educating farmers about the benefits of small scale integrated farming and seed saving.

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Naomi Darling Architecture

In the process of designing the seed library for the Joko Learning Center, the class witnessed tree ordinations by local monks and visited model farms. The result is a potent example of how investing the time and resources into listening and engaging the community creates future architects who value the social impact of their work.

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New Haven Botanical Healing Garden Dedicated to Victims of Gun Violence, Svigals + Partners

Colleen Murphy-Dunning of the Yale School of the Environment, Marisa Page of Svigals + Partners architecture, and Marlene Miller Pratt concluded the panel with their collaborative project, the New Haven Botanical Healing Garden Dedicated to Victims of Gun Violence. Marlene returned to New Haven in search of the murderer of her son. She ultimately found him, and found justice, but the wound is still there. She powerfully recounts that phone call you never believe you will get. The call that tells you that your child has been killed. How can that information ever be received? The legacy of violence in our cities, and specifically in New Haven, is the legacy of mothers who have had to bury their children. As Marlene so eloquently shared, no mother wants to visit the memory of their child in a cemetery. Where can they go, to be in beauty, to be with other mothers who can understand their loss? Can the same city that took away their child transform into a place to help them process their grief? How can the city provide resources to respond urgently and compassionately? That’s when they called Murphy-Dunning, the Director of Yale Urban Resources Initiative.

The New Haven Botanical Healing Garden Dedicated to Victims of Gun Violence was initiated by Marlene who initially sought healing through Yale Environmental School’s social forestry practice. Planting trees with others was one way she found solace, so much so that through the process she discovered she needed more than a tree. Marlene needed a garden. She had the mandate to ask for one, and she did. The rest is history. Marlene’s garden on behalf of all family members who have lost loved ones to gun violence opens to the public in 2021. Soon she will be able to share her healing pathway with others.

Up by West Rock off Valley Avenue you walk through the wind chimes into the sacred space and see the names memorialized in stone. Lineages broken. Generations sundered. Walking the path of magnitude shifts the loss from a statistic to a palpable feeling of the magnitude of what was lost. We find ourselves discovering the impact of what was lost, and how that loss is a web of loss that stretches into a future we shall never know. How can this garden provide a home for the unknowable future? Fortunately, places do not have to answer questions, only frame them. By framing the question the place sets in motion a response. Healing will start through the creation of a physical space for that healing.

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Marlene Miller Pratt and Colleen Murphy-Dunning

I came away from Aligning Architecture with Social Change with a renewed faith in Architecture and a feeling of urgency that the built environment and the landscape can and should bring healing and humanity to communities around the world. Intentional architecture that consciously engages with the social sphere in a sustainable and humane way should not be exceptional, but the new normal — the Hippocratic oath of the architect.

Jessica Kung Dreyfus is a global thought leader, artist, designer, author, and mother. She is the founder of Make Conscious, a cross disciplinary studio and consultancy that creates socially and environmentally responsible places. She is currently working on her upcoming book, Your Phenomenal Home.

Jessica Kung Dreyfus is the founder of Make Conscious, a cross-disciplinary studio practice. She received her B.A. cum laude from Yale in Architecture.

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