Today, I wanted to share something that happened at work this week that was a bit of a wake up call for me. It also forced me to challenge my automatic reactions and reflect on what it means to be an architect in 2021. My story is a bit specific to what I do and where I live, but I think there are some universal lessons we can all take away from this.
I’m currently working on a renovation of a civic library. Libraries are going through a transformation right now, from a repository of books to a digital, community hub. We’re working with a group of awesome librarians turn some of the original functions, like book storage, into public spaces, like a digital media space, lounge, and multipurpose rooms, as well as fixing some of the functional problems of the building.
The existing building has a three-storey atrium that is problematic in many ways.
Firstly, there's very little visual cohesion. It's as if the original architect ran out of time, and just threw on little bits of shapes and windows at the last minute! It's a real missed opportunity, and we want to turn it into something special.
Secondly, there's also huge problems with acoustics. When you're sitting on the third floor, you can hear the details of a conversation happening on the first floor. When there's a kid throwing a temper tantrum, it is really disruptive for the entire library.
We proposed a solution - an acoustic feature to hang in the middle of the atrium. It would act as an acoustic buffer, while also providing multiple possibilities for projecting art work and creating a gathering space. It would also tie together some of the random visual elements in the space. However, after several iterations, the librarians finally came to the decision to leave the atrium empty. They wanted to Indigenize the space, and leave it open for future exhibits by Indigenous artists.
I was bummed out! We had designed a feature that would solve the functional problems, was multi-functional and beautiful. We'd received lots of interest and support, but in the end, it was still a no.
Then my boss said to me: "the City (of Vancouver) is going through a process of reconciliation. It's going to be a part of every conversation in all the civic projects we work on - it's a fact of our jobs and we need to learn to work with it". For those of you not familiar with the history of Canada, in a nutshell, Western settlers came here, stole land and committed horrific humanitarian crimes against Indigenous people, and for the past many years, but especially in the past five years, we've been going through a process of reconciliation through various efforts.
Then this week, we heard the news. The remains of 215 Indigenous children found buried under unmarked graveyards in a residential school in Kamloops. I don't even know where justice begins in a situation like this.
In the midst of my every day existence, I had neatly stacked Canada's history into a corner, the City's reconciliation efforts, as something "to be dealt with". This was a strong reminder that this is not the past, this is the now.
I remember my conversation with Architect Scott Kemp, who works solely with Indigenous communities. He talked about how systemic injustices against Indigenous communities is still very present. Municipal fire fighting departments refusing to acknowledge Indigenous fire fighting methods, threatening to take away the children if they did not oblige to the "official" way of fighting fire. Yes. In 2021. Shocking, right? And that's just one of many.
When we talk about integrating Indigenous art / culture into our public spaces, we're doing more than just celebrating that one artist. We're elevating the community. We're putting it in front of the public's eyes, big and proud, as a constant reminder of whose land we are on.
Moving forward, I'm going to try to learn more about the local Indigenous artists. Talk to them. Learn about their work. Learn what it means. And think about how I can integrate their work into the designs. So many times, architects say, "maybe we can integrate Indigenous art here", but never with any specifics. (I am guilty of this) We design with a high level of specificity with everything else, why should this be any different?
To wrap it up, two lessons I was reminded of this week:
- Know when to stop selling. As architects, we are brought up with this idea that we just need to sell it better. The client will see the value if we show it this way and that way. That's why we spend hours and hours refining one image. I fall into this trap. A lot. But sometimes, we have to look past our own ideas and inhibitions and really listen, because sometimes no really means no. I find this balance between selling and listening quite tricky because when I'm selling an idea, I do really believe that it will provide the best value for the client and for the public. I think we just need to give it our best shot, but also know when to back off. From my experience, this push and pull usually makes the design stronger.
- Be more than just a designer, as much as we'd like to just design cool things. Especially now, we are having to solve a lot of the problems of our past generation. We need to get involved in the community, we need to learn about the culture and history. The most successful architects I've seen are generous, caring, and very attentive to all the things happening in their communities. A little capitalist sidenote, I think those who can do this better than others will have a competitive edge in the field.
Some of my subscribers on my Youtube channel advised me against talking about political stuff, but I don't know how to do that as an architect and as a human with feelings.. Do you?