Architecture & Politics: What’s my role?

Since starting at the BAC, we have seen significant changes in our political and cultural systems, both nationally and internationally.  This has left me questioning many of my long held beliefs about how we function as a society.  If architecture is both a reflection of our society and a cultural influence, it is important to understand its changing role within a changing world.  I have also recently been reflecting on my reasons for studying architecture and my role within the architectural community.

I started studying architecture, specifically at the BAC, out of an understanding that our built environment can support community and interpersonal connection or divide it.  Our spatial world plays a large part in how we perceive the world and the people in it.  I was interested in how we can design homes that supported family cohesiveness when I was witnessing families being increasingly disconnected by technology.  I was interested in how we can design work places that facilitated collaboration when so many people telecommute out of convenience.  I was interested in how we can design public spaces that built diverse, strong communities based on shared space and resources and not on ideological and intellectual similarities. Our built environment can allow us to interact with each other in more authentic ways that reach beyond our demographic and ideological similarities and highlight our shared experiences, regardless of our differences.

As our political systems have seemingly been working against this goal, I have questioned my original theories on what architecture can do, what I can do.  It is true that architecture is not the only solution.  It is not the magic bullet that will bring more love and acceptance to a highly polarized world.  I am aware that, no matter how altruistic the goal of the architect is, his/her design will not alone heal a city.  As an architect, I can not expect to design the perfect cure to all of societies scars. However, in my roles as a committee person in municipal building projects, I am starting to understand that by bringing my skills to both the design and political tables, I can find ways to influence both for the good of our greater communities and ALL of the people included in those communities.

It has been my long held belief that a community that is inclusive of our most vulnerable members is one that is stronger and more resilient.  It was for that reason that I studied adaptive equipment as an engineering undergraduate student. With our current political powers abdicating their responsibilities to these communities, I look at how I can be an effective agent and ally.  My work for the Groton Senior Center taught me that through political systems and good design, we might provide opportunity and safety to those often marginalized populations.

Prior to my work with the Senior Center, I had never set foot in a Senior Center and rarely interacted with seniors within my community.  During this project I learned of the vital role that senior centers play in preventing isolation, providing intellectual and physical stimulation, and creating supportive interpersonal connections.  I also learned that, while a dedicated space for a vulnerable population can be isolating, through good planning and design, it can offer a way to reintegrate that population into the larger community.  A senior center that is in close proximity to or co-located with other municipal services offers grader visibility and opportunity for overlapping services and experience.  Furthermore, a senior center location can provide a point of pride and ownership, not only to the senior population, but to the surrounding neighborhood and town.  Designing for small groups can provide inroads to and for the greater community to better integrate with specific groups.

In addition to seeing how good design can integrate and strengthen community, I have become increasingly aware and able to navigate the political and financial systems that are required to take on this type of work.  It is not enough to provide good design, we within the design community must be able to advocate for the need and feasibility of these designs. We must be able to communicate with all the stakeholders, including the voting public, the how and why of our design and its goals.  We must be able to assist our clients in finding fiscally responsible building methods that can account for both private and public funding sources.  I have started to learn the many ways these civic and municipal building projects differ from private development projects, as well as how to service as a practical ally, not only a theoretical one.

Last fall shook my confidence in our nation, our communities, and myself.  I questioned the ability to build strong, resilient communities, both figuratively and literally.  Through my work with the town of Groton, I now have a clearer understanding of how these projects work and my potential roles within them.  I no longer see my role solely as a architect or designer that works to find the perfect design solution.  I see my role a political and civic agent for integration with a much broader and well-defined tool belt. It is through the political work of public engagement and planning that community building can begin.  It is as an advocate for design thinking within building and politics that integration can be achieved.  My vision of my role within this industry has broadened, but my skills and knowledge have become more clarified.  I am developing real knowledge-base, skills, and methods to be the agent and ally for good, integrative design.