Year in Review 2018: Shift Practice to Shift the Landscape

Our contributors comment on an event or a moment from the last year that demanded more of how we should practice, frame, and respond to design.

year review 2018 shifting professional landscape
In looking back at 50 years of professional practice and activism, the symposium “Shifting the Landscape,” held at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in September, aimed to raise the profile of black design professionals and scholars for an up-and-coming generation. Courtesy Leah Jones/NMAAHC

The year 1968 was seminal in changing the sociopolitical landscape of American life and, in turn, the built environment. It gave birth to important policy initiatives like the Fair Housing Act and saw civil rights leader Whitney M. Young Jr. confront the American Institute of Architects’ whiteness and indifference to issues facing African Americans. Fifty years later, this past September, the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture hosted “Shifting the Landscape: Black Architects and Planners, 1968 to Now.” The three-day symposium convened architects, scholars, planners, and students from around the world to consider work still relevant today, from social justice and economic inclusion to cultural identity and conservation. Speakers included the museum’s architects David Adjaye and Zena Howard, urban planner Toni Griffin, landscape designer Sara Zewde, and artist Amanda Williams, among many others.

The topics covered ranged from neighborhood disinvestment and gentrification to understanding the dynamics between people and space while addressing difficult problems like global urbanization. A dominant theme was challenging the practice and conventions of architecture and planning, and the principal tools for shaping the environment and communities. Or as Mabel O. Wilson put it, quoting Audre Lorde, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” In a conversation with Dr. Sharon Sutton, Wilson asked bluntly, “What would a black feminist practice look like?” “Well, it wouldn’t be about buildings,” Sutton replied. “It would be about the community and looking at the whole ecology of the community.”

This charge is being taken up by a new generation. Minneapolis-based architect Jennifer Newsom described her firm’s approach and the work of several others as shifting design focus by developing new tools to engage complex social, economic, and environmental issues that have affected black communities. These practices are more interdisciplinary, entrepreneurial, collaborative, missiondriven, grounded in place and the narratives of their communities—and opportunistic. Their work happens by grit and “hustle,” to get around the systemic lack of resources and opportunities many black communities continue to face across the globe. Speakers described their experiences creating coalitions to assemble resources like land access, materials, labor, funding, and ultimately power. They are, as Newsom put it, “neither waiting to be asked nor asking for permission.”

JUSTIN GARRETT MOORE is the executive director of New York City’s Public Design Commission.

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