Building Humanity @Dodla2017

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Photographed by Dwell on Design


by Lisa Van Eyssen, Contributing Editor

The start of Dwell on Design 2017 took off on a high note with the main stage featured speaker, architect Sir David Adjaye, OBE RA. In conversation with Christopher Hawthorne, architecture critic for the Los Angeles Times, this special event gave any budding architect or designer real inspiration and flashes of personal history to help launch them on their own path. 

Adjaye, a citizen of the world, born in Tanzania to Ghanaian parents, is considered the leading architect of his generation. Raised in several countries including the UK, Adjaye first thought he was going to follow his older brother into a life in biochemistry.  If Adjaye had been a better science student, the world of architecture might be very different today. Instead, Adjay was encouraged by his art school teacher to steer away from university and toward a foundation course, placing him in a global community of artists.  The move to a foundation course became the defining moment for him, and coupled with his innate ability for the language of art, he began his education in painting, drawing, sculpture, eventually finding his way to architecture.

“Don’t draw first.  Listen, look, really observe, “ says Adjaye, who is more interested in how one is 'corrupted' by the context of design rather than just pure abstraction of ideas. He believes this corruption makes a really rich product, and laughed, “Corruption as good rather than corruption as bad.”        

After graduating, Adjaye worked briefly for acclaimed British architect David Chipperfield, and Portuguese architect Soto de Maura. De Maura and the work of Eduardo Cesar led Adjaye to truly discover his love for the crafting of architecture. Both de Maura and Cesar were steeped in the craft and modernism of architecture, ‘taking industrial production and creating craft’ says Adjaye and for him, the ethos of a humanity in everything rather than an industrialization of everything, set him on his course and has been the guiding mantel throughout his career.

Hawthorne and Adjaye discussed the notion of public and private works. Most interestingly, Adjaye notes that architectural design for city homes is developing toward ‘privileging, interior spaces’  and becoming less and less readable from the street. This shift in the urban footprint is about respite he believes. Adjaye spoke of a changing notion of "home" in the busy metropolitan cities that are increasing in density,  as spaces for retreat, and recharge, where inhabitants must cope with 24 hour a day activity.

Going through the major moments of the architect's career, Hawthorne asked Adjaye about his first New York project, Sugar Hill, where Adjaye purposely takes the discussion away from luxury towards a more egalitarian notion of design. He believes that the topic of ‘luxury’ need not be the only discussion in town when considering design, and he is convinced that architecture “is a right (for all).” 

Photo Credit: Sugar Hill, Harlem - Adjaye & Associates

Adjaye approached Sugar Hill by essentially talking about homeless housing, habitats with their own agenda reverberating underneath society and which he believes carry equal weight in discussions of city planning, as any idea of design which is often dominated by the emphasis on luxury. Says Adjaye, “The notion of design should not be limited to class, designers should work across the entire spectrum because we are trying to democratize this knowledge.”

These democratic visions found a stunning reflection at a separate DWELL exhibit with the progressive team at The Martin Architecture and Design Workshop (MADWORKSHOP).

Global Design Post had the honor of meeting with Sofia Borges, acting director for MADWORKSHOP and R. Scott Mitchell, assistant professor in the Practice of Architecture, at the MADWORKSHOP exhibit. Both Borges and Mitchell teach at the USC School of Architecture, and were approached by MADWORKSHOP founders David and Mary Martin, to collaborate on a course called the Homeless Studio Project, a program to explore the architect’s role in helping to solve the Los Angeles homeless crisis. 

A street view rendering shows a Homes for Hope community. (MADWORKSHOP Homeless Studio)

The synchronicity runs deep in the pairing of Borges and Mitchell with the Martins, long time supporters of technological fabrication for student education and something that is anything but the norm in most architecture schools.  During the DWELL event, the Homeless Studio displayed renderings of Homes for Hope, a 30-unit, stackable, transitional housing solution that won Fast Company’s “World Changing Ideas Award” in the Student Category; Nomadic Shelters, collapsible, adaptive shelters that can be reconfigured and moved easily, constructed from easily found objects such as boxes or shopping carts; and a Tiny Home, built and displayed in real time from found objects during the DWELL event.

Says Mitchell, “People don’t realize that it is much more expensive to have people on the streets rather than get them into housing.  the pressure on the services is so great when they live on the streets.”

MADWORKSHOP have been working with the city, founding a partnership with Hope of the Valley Rescue Mission and finding so many people responding to their call for help.  Says Mitchell, “Everyone is looking for a solution to this. Looking for properties that are useable now, parking lots, empty lots. Containers are not a solution.” As it happens, containers triple the cost of housing because of the structural retrofitting needed to be within code. “We wanted something that was in the code, that was factory built housing that when it left the factory, it could go straight to site,”says Borges

The project has yielded many benefits for the students, budding architects-to-be.  It has exposed them to a real world with real world clients, city bureaucracy, building and safety, and city planning commissions. Students tackled spec lighting units, they have to physically build the units and actually house people. The course allowed them to each put their architecture out into the world and get feed back.  Says Borges,  “It was very powerful.” Students went through a boot-camp on homelessness, heading down to skid row, women’s shelters, a midnight housing mission and veterans shelters in an effort to help them understand the high stakes involved while building both their design abilities and compassion.

Los Angeles has specific issues. The cost of living has sky rocketed, housing is out of reach for most income levels both in the real estate and rental markets. Those at the lowest rungs, holding on through rent control over many years find that if a developer takes over the property, there is no where for them to go. They are priced out of the city. Says Mitchell “there are people who don’t consider this an architectural issue at all. They consider it a policy issue, it’s not your problem, why are you even doing this…These are people who need architects. They actually need architect more than anyone and it isn’t something architecture addresses.”

In terms of the students, Mitchell says, “You can't teach compassion, and I think most students get into this course and they realize it was a real output. And the compassion and empathy came later.” Borges adds “But it definitely came and it's been so touching to see. I come to this from a very personal side of things but I never thought I’d come into a course and have anybody care as much as I do.  And now I’m among friends. Like in every way. Everyone cares.”

Photograph by Brandon Friend-Solis

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