Sep 17, 2020

Renee Cheng: Change Agency, Value Change

Amid the pandemic, economic crash, and social justice outcries awaits a collision that will reveal new questions for the design profession, writes the renowned educator, researcher, and current dean of the University of Washington’s College of Built Environments.

By Renee Cheng

Renée Cheng, FAIA, DPACSA, is a nationally renowned professor in the Department of Architecture and Dean of the College of Built Environments at the University of Washington, in Seattle. Educated at Harvard College and Harvard Graduate School of Design, Cheng has been recognized for education excellence with numerous awards from AIA and others. She is leading the research team developing the AIA Guides for Equitable Practice. Elevated to the AIA College of Fellows in 2016, Cheng has served as AIA Minnesota President in 2009 as well as on several AIA committees on topics related to knowledge, innovation, culture, and equity.

renee cheng

Sean Airhart/NBBJ Renee Cheng

Collisions are violent. The greater the mass or velocity of objects, the greater the energy released. The crises of the pandemic, economic crash, and social justice outcries are massive and still accelerating. In the wake of their collision, they will reveal new questions for our profession—and newfound energy to address them.

Previously, architects pondering whether a new building was worthy of adding to our canon would ask “What does it look like?” and maybe “How well does it function?”

Now we need to know more: What’s its embodied carbon? Is it resilient to natural disasters? Did innovation help eliminate waste or increase value? Furthermore, are its supply streams fair trade? Does its construction or operation depend on the economics of indentured or slave labor? Can its airflow help stop the spread of disease? Whom does the building benefit?

In architecture education, a space with pinup walls and north-facing windows was once the main ingredient to a successful design studio. Instructors asked students about their design processes and outcomes and—cognizant of studio culture’s perpetuation of the 24/7 cycle—worried about those pulling all-nighters.

Now we must also wonder how often students wash their hands and whether they attended a party last night. We worry why students on remote learning are whispering or silent: Are they bored, in a different time zone, packed together in a household, caring for a sick family member, or simply maxed out on screen time?

Pursuing these deeper questions might feel intimidating or intrusive, particularly when the tools to answer them can be unfamiliar or unknown. But there is freedom in interrogating, rethinking, and finding new stories in histories we thought we knew.

Through this process, we may affirm truths that many of us had suspected: Buildings are not objects; architects may be complicit in the structural inequities of the built world; the studio format is not sacred; students’ personal lives are relevant; the invisible forces of culture have visible consequences; and cultural drivers of inequality should be disrupted and reformed.

 [T]here is freedom in interrogating, rethinking, and finding new stories in histories we thought we knew.

In order to answer these difficult but essential questions, architectural practitioners and educators need to make two fundamental shifts.

First, we change the agency of who has a voice and give power and responsibility to those who are most impacted by and most often left out of decision-making processes. In studios, ask students to break—and then rebuild—the model of teaching. In firms, flip the role of the emerging designer from the trainee to the pilot who tests new practice models. In communities, acknowledge the authority of the lived experience of residents and use their definition of justice to define project needs. We must accept that a building is not always the only answer and that design is not always the most important expertise.

Second, we change the way architecture is valued. We link design intent with social, health, and economic impacts through research—and base architectural fees on those outcomes. This opens paths to alternatives to the competitive bid process, in which firms fight to provide services for diminishing fees. We partner with students and faculty who are advancing research agendas on embodied carbon, equity, social justice, and health so we can apply and test research in our projects. And we stop assuming that our firm is alone in this pursuit or that proprietary work limits what can be shared. There is plenty to do and plenty of credit to go around when progress is made.

As the crises near their collision, let’s channel the imminent release of energy toward substantial and creative changes that will expedite our search for new ways of thinking, educating, building, and designing. These changes will become a starting point for work that is long overdue.

This essay was originally published in Architect Magazine, September 2020.

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