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Protests and property: Can architects rebuild our broken cities?

June 9, 2020, 10:58 AM UTC

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The top editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer resigned Saturday after the headline on a column by the newspaper’s architecture critic led to a walkout by dozens of members of the editorial staff. 

The column, which lamented the destruction of buildings in downtown Philadelphia during protests over the killing of George Floyd, opened a fraught debate about wealth, power, and race in the city. The headline that triggered the backlash: “Buildings Matter, Too.”

The Inquirer, in a subsequent apology, acknowledged that the headline had “offensively riffed on the Black Lives Matter movement and suggested an equivalence between the loss of buildings and the lives of black Americans.”

On the Inquirer website, the headline has been amended, and now reads: “Damaging buildings disproportionately hurts the people protesters are trying to uplift.” Notably, though, the column beneath it, by Pulitzer Prize winner Inga Saffron, remains as written. 

Opinion editors at the Wall Street Journal were quick to decry the purge at the Inquirer as another example of “cancel culture journalism.” They lumped the exit of long-serving Inquirer editor Stan Wischnowski with the ouster of New York Times opinion editor James Bennett following a staff revolt over the publication of an essay by Republican Senator Tom Cotton calling for military troops to restore order in strife-torn American cities. 

“All of this shows the extent to which American journalism is now dominated by the same moral denunciation, ‘safe space’ demands, and identity-politics dogmas that began in universities,” the Journal fumed. “The agents of this politics now dominate nearly all of America’s leading cultural institutions.”

Such fulminations obscure an important difference between the two controversies. Unlike Cotton’s screed, Saffron’s column was nuanced and thoughtful. No one has faulted its accuracy. 

Saffron states right up front in her essay that she thinks protesters’ “anger was fully justified” and that “the grotesque killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor—and many others before them—are attacks on the fundamental promise of our democracy.” 

She acknowledges the argument that “people’s lives are more important than property” and the claim that “those protests would never have gained America’s undivided attention if they had stuck to the usual polite rounds of hey-hey chants.” 

She notes that, on her architecture-centric social media feeds, defenders of the destruction include architects, preservationists, and her own daughter. She recognizes, moreover, that protests aren’t just a reaction to racism in the police force, but a far more complex phenomenon created by deindustrialization, rising inequality, and the larger defects of global capitalism.

But she comes back to those buildings. “‘People over property’ is great as a rhetorical slogan,” she writes. “But as a practical matter, the destruction of downtown buildings in Philadelphia—and in Minneapolis, Los Angeles, and a dozen other American cities—is devastating for the future of cities. We know from the civil rights uprisings of the 1960s that the damage will ultimately end up hurting the very people the protests are meant to uplift.”

Is this a legitimate point-of-view about which there is room for debate? Or is it an “unempathetic” defense of mostly white wealth and privilege that deflects genuine examination of how racism corrodes the fundamental institutions of American cities?

An open letter to leaders of the Inquirer from journalists of color who participated in the walkout doesn’t mention Saffron’s column. Clearly, though, its authors are fed up with elite preoccupation over structures. “We’re tired of working for months and years to gain the trust of our communities—communities that have long had good reason to not trust our profession—only to see that trust eroded in an instant by careless, unempathetic decisions. It’s no coincidence that communities hurt by systemic racism only see journalists in their neighborhoods when people are shot or buildings burn down.”

It’s a particularly tricky discussion for architecture which, as Karen Lu and Mary-Margaret Zindren of the Minnesota chapter of the American Institute of Architects point out in a recent essay, is a “predominantly white profession.” Zindren and Lu offer sound advice for architects—as well as urban planners, designers, and journalists—who care about race and the future of broken cities:

“Instead of…assuming we know what is right and jumping in to assert our experience, expertise and good intentions, we need to step back, listen, and be ready to learn, unlearn, and adapt. Rebuilding what’s been lost is impossible—and it’s the wrong goal. The buildings, systems, and relationships that existed before came about through design and construction. Before rebuilding, the architecture community must join with others in rethinking, reimagining, and redesigning what’s next.”

More design news below.

Clay Chandler
clay.chandler@fortune.com

Many companies are speaking out against racial injustices right now. But how do they fare in their own workplaces? Black employees in the corporate world, Fortune wants to hear from you: Please submit your anonymous thoughts and anecdotes here.

NEWS BY DESIGN

ABOUT FACE

IBM announced it will stop selling facial recognition software and halt future R&D on the technology. CEO Arvind Krishna called out bias in A.I. algorithms and questioned the morality of allowing law enforcement to use facial recognition tech.

CAUGHT ON CAMERA

Why does the fear and even reality of being filmed fail to deter police brutality? Ethan Zuckerman, a professor of public policy, says the panopticon has failed—but filming violent officers still serves a purpose. 

SAFE SPACE

Wash basins by the front door; vestibules to remove shoes; a UV light tower that disinfects phones: a look at how the coronavirus might change the interiors of our homes.

SPEAK UP

As Black Lives Matter protests continue across the U.S. (and the world), public art institutions and museums are struggling to strike the right tone. Some are chastised for staying silent, others for not being loud enough. The debate over how galleries should reflect or direct public opinion continues.

THE WRONG HANDS

A report from IBM outlines how technology designed to help can be corrupted by perpetrators of domestic abuse and recommends how designers can work to make sure it isn't. The report, published late last month, is especially timely as lockdowns intended to protect people from the pandemic have trapped victims with their abusers.

EVENTS BY DESIGN

June: The month-long London Festival of Architecture is running a stripped back event online this year, with the core public program moved to (hopefully) later this year. The San Francisco Design Week, which starts June 15, has gone digital too. Also, London Fashion Week: Men’s would have walked June 12-14. Instead, it will sit online.

July: Christie’s is planning a semi-virtual auction for July 10. The “first of its kind” event will livestream auctions from four cities—Hong Kong, New York, Paris and London; D&AD’s New Blood Festival—a celebration of upcoming talent in design—will be running online this year, July 6-10. The digital festival marks New Blood’s 40th anniversary.

September: Art Basel in Switzerland—initially rescheduled from June to September—has been cancelled, set to return in June 2021.

Ongoing: Dezeen’s Virtual Design Festival has been extended to July 10

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

Limina recently released its 2020 report on how companies can integrate design thinking across all levels of business operations. There are six “best practices” highlighted in the report:

  • Embed a human-centered design culture company-wide
  • Communicate for the common good of the business
  • Integrate design resources with specific business functions
  • Capture and manage specific business metrics
  • Create and use artifacts and repeatable processes
  • Invest in artifacts, the processes, then systems

The idea of “artifacts” is worth expanding on. According to Limina, the term refers to models, diagrams, documents and the “tacit knowledge” carried by employees. It’s in a sense the legacy of previous work that can be reused to streamline future projects. Yet, referring specifically to user experience (UX) design, Limina says it found 49% of companies don’t reuse “artifacts” and instead start UX projects from scratch each time.

“Starting every new project from scratch can lead to unnecessary costs and labor, poor quality, and a slow time to market,” Limina says. The consultancy advocates companies devise a means to archive artifacts—especially the “tacit knowledge” of its employees.

Facilitating knowledge sharing among employees will help businesses get back to normal as staff return to work following a prolonged spell out of office.

QUOTED BY DESIGN

“For nearly every injustice in the world, there is an architecture that has been planned and designed to perpetuate it.”

Says Bryan Lee Jr., setting out what he calls a “key principle” of the Design Justice movement, in a sentence amid a powerful call to architects and designers to consider how they can put their profession to good use. As Lee explains, Design Justice seeks to “dismantle the privilege and power structures that use architecture as a tool of oppression and sees it as an opportunity to envision radically just spaces centered on the liberation of disinherited communities.” Very well worth a read.

This week’s edition of BxD was curated by Eamon Barrett. Email him at eamon.barrett@fortune.com