Reevaluating America’s Priorities

Metropolis‘s May/June issue takes a broad look at American Design, digging into the practice of architecture, the resurgence of craft, quintessential building forms, and decaying infrastructure.

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OJT’s Bastion Community in New Orleans features trauma-informed design principles. The veterans’ housing is arranged so the front doors face inner courtyards—quads with a shared entry point and equal access to streets. Courtesy © William Crocker

About once in a generation, cultures get to stand back and reassess what really matters, and if they must course-correct to evolve. A ruthless pandemic, a groundswell of voices for racial justice, the political intention to tackle the climate crisis, and the aftermath of the #MeToo movement have forced architects and designers in the United States to ask: What values do we hold dear? What harm have we caused, and who benefits from the work we do?

For example, through the 1990s and 2000s, Walmart and other big-box retailers decimated mom-and-pop stores in small-town America, playing a role in the collapse of main streets and downtowns across the country. Now the Walton Family Foundation is addressing that legacy in Walmart’s home region. Railyard, Ross Barney Architects’ sensitive new amenity for Rogers, Arkansas (“Railyard Park Signifies a Small-Town Renaissance in Northwest Arkansas”), attempts to restore a lost sense of vibrancy and belonging to this small city.

We see this welcome return to community-centered and nature-connected design everywhere. In Jackson, Mississippi, Carbon Office has built a sustainable coworking hub and is creating a park that combines well-being and culture. In New Buffalo, Michigan, Curioso’s work on a hotel is supporting a shrinking community through the COVID-19 crisis, echoing the ethos of the firm’s projects with fledgling businesses in its hometown of Chicago. In Ann Arbor, Michigan, PLY+ flexes midwestern sensibilities around material innovation, whether at a strikingly contemporary hospital chapel or in renovating a Detroit museum’s historic Albert Kahn–designed building.

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Chicago-based Ross Barney Architects has completed a five-acre linear park in downtown Rogers, Arkansas, with a flexible pavilion called the Butterfield Stage at its core. Straddling a former rail stop and adjacent to a still-active line, Railyard was partially funded by the Walton Family Foundation’s (WFF) Northwest Arkansas Design Excellence Program. Courtesy Kate Joyce Studios

History and tradition are fertile grounds for interpretation and introspection: See the remaking of the archetypically American gabled-roof home (“Gabled Roofs Experience a Revival Across North America”) or the questions raised by three shows on American craft (“Can Craft Save America?”).

To some extent, culture and policy are what we make of them. While all of us in the building professions have the power to shape trends and influence rules, we can also exploit both to benefit people and planet. Take the nearly $2.7 trillion American Jobs Plan making its way through Congress at the time of writing. Urban planning professor Billy Fleming (“The American Jobs Plan Should Help Us Avoid Climate Catastrophe, Not Build a Carbon Bomb,”) urges us not to think of it simply as a harbinger of new business, but instead a pathway to a more just, lower-carbon future through “stewardship of the world we already have rather than the temptation to chase new ones we’ve yet to imagine.”

In short, we are at a crossroads. Finally there is cultural and political momentum to support anyone who wants to right the wrongs of American history and build the foundations for a resilient nation. Let’s not squander this opportunity.

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