Part I: Systemic Injustice and Design Series

The design world has undergone tectonic shifts since our practice’s founding in 1965, but perhaps none more monumental than what we’ve experienced in the last few years. The diligent work of many to build capacity and advocate for change over decades swelled into a rallying cry in response to acts of racially motivated violence like the murder of George Floyd and rising hate crimes against the AAPI community. Set against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic and the fundamental inequities that were amplified and made clear to a wider audience than ever before, environmental justice and economic inequality has never been clearer. The need for change has never been more acute.

At Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, we saw this as a moment of reckoning — an opportunity to accelerate change within our organization and more deeply invest in our commitment to equity, diversity, inclusion, anti-racism, and social justice work. Much of this learning has been stewarded by our firmwide Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) committee. This committee includes a multi-disciplinary, intentionally diverse cross-section of practice leadership, mid-level professionals, emerging talent, marketing and communications staff, and to help provide opportunities for top down and bottom-up mentorship and growth. This group stewards the goals committed to and stated by the more homogenous leadership group, and they work closely with our external Intercultural and Organizational Support consultant, Team Dynamics, to build capacity so the entire practice is better equipped to hold each other accountable and question our assumptions. They are an integral part of Bohlin Cywinski Jackson’s commitment to the large, organizational shift happening at every level, with each staff member empowered to enact change within their daily work.

The committee is actively evolving our practice based on the research of Reneé Cheng, Dean at University of Washington College of Built Environments and nationally recognized leader on equity and effective collaborative teaming, which informed the AIA “Guides for Equitable Practice.” The committee meets monthly to report on the activities of its subcommittees, which include Recruitment, Benchmarking, Equitable Career Pathways, and Community Engagement.

Our work with Team Dynamics spans the course of an 18-month engagement to conduct a firmwide survey to establish a baseline; co-create relevant, specific, and actionable goals; lead structured equity workshops with mandatory attendance for all employees; assess progress towards established goals; and review and provide feedback on all policies and role descriptions through the lens of EDI. Together, we have gained a deeper understanding of our current culture and the ways we can do better. We’ve developed tools to spot patterns and enact change within our organization and our projects, and we’ve asked ourselves deep, foundational questions about what we do. These include:

  • What is the role of architecture in helping to shape a more just, equitable future?
  • How do we define design excellence?
  • How do we define justice, and how can we manifest it in the design process?
  • How do we build a more robust, diverse design community within our firm and the larger industry?
  • And as Jennifer Newsom, AIA, put it recently in Architect magazine, “Architecture is a service profession. We each need to answer the question: What are you working in service of?”

These are big questions that require research, discussion, analysis, and a commitment to constant reevaluation. One thing we have learned through this process is that the deeper we commit to this education, the richer and more expansive our learning becomes. Bringing in external voices — whether these are diverse business partners, authors, clients, or design community members — helps us broaden our view and identify our blind spots. This is not work that can be done in a vacuum; it cannot be done in a single session.

It is in this spirit that we are launching a virtual series called Systemic Injustice and Design. Over the course of the series, we will be transparent about our learning and unlearning, share resources, and encourage a dialogue. We plan to cover the following topics (and more):

Defining Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion
What is Justice and what is architecture’s role in advancing justice?

While there are many lenses through which one can view it, Bohlin Cywinski Jackson defines justice as the act of removing systemic barriers, both within policies as well as the physical environment. Architecture has long played either an active role or has been complicit in shaping an unjust world, so our work now is twofold: we need to embody justice in our profession and in the physical environments we design. We see the role of citizen architects as using our creativity, cross-disciplinary thinking, and experience working with communities to create a more just built world and society.

Bryan C. Lee, Jr., of Colloqate describes how focusing on justice (rather than solely on diversity) must serve as the foundation in this process in a recent Autodesk spotlight: “I’ve seen so many people aim their efforts towards diversity, as though diversity were a goal that could be achieved without going through the processes of establishing justice and establishing equity within the field writ large…You will never get to a diverse field or a diverse city or a diverse world without really considering what the imbalance of power and privilege looks like within our work.” Collaborating with Bryan and the team at Colloqate has been an incredible learning experience for us and deeply enriching as we seek to expand our definition of justice and look closely at the ways we have been complicit in the structures of power and privilege that have fostered the current status quo.

Triple Bottom Line Sustainability
How are justice, economic empowerment, and the wellbeing of our planet and its occupants connected?

The AIA Committee on the Environment’s Framework for Excellence defines the architect’s role as protecting the “health, safety, and welfare of the public [which] has a new and broader meaning amid challenges such as increasing climate extremes and social inequity.” In our practice, we explore how an integrated approach to sustainability — looking at the social, environmental, and economic impacts of design — can lead to more robust, resilient work that is greater than the sum of its parts. We also explore how to do more with less while connecting to place and empowering communities, themes we explored in a recent white paper on adaptive re-use in Pittsburgh and other Post-Industrial cities.

Universal Design
How do we create truly accessible, democratic spaces? How can we think more holistically about Universal Design?

Democratic spaces don’t just occur in public facilities. Our practice has a long history of designing accessible, democratic spaces for workplace, higher education, and cultural clients. Together, we explore how we can be more expansive in our thinking about what universal design means — creating inclusive, accessible architecture that engages the senses and connects occupants to the natural world.

The Role of Story
What stories are we telling about our projects? What are we teaching the next generation of designers?

As a firm with a five-decade history working with prominent clients and projects, we are thoughtful about the role of our legacy and how we leverage it to ethically earn future work and elevate the profession. Many of our practice leaders are also educators, and we know that our work is often used in an academic context to educate students and emerging professionals. That is why the stories we tell about our projects are critically important.

Perhaps one of the largest shifts we have experienced in the last few years is a subtle but important change in the way we talk about our work. Rather than describe the final product and materials used as we might have done in the past, we tell the story of process and people — highlighting how community input meaningfully shaped the program or how creative thinking about stormwater management transformed a site into a living laboratory. These stories spark further innovation, showcasing architecture’s active role as an agent for change and the critical need to integrate diverse voices in the design process to create more inclusive, resilient architecture. As a deeply humanist practice, it is important that we center the people our buildings serve.

Building a More Diverse Design Community
What is the role of architecture firms like ours in supporting a more diverse and equitable practice internally as well as the wider design community?

We believe that a more justice-driven, diverse design industry benefits us all. In our experience, robust, resilient designs emerge from collaboration with people who bring different perspectives. This is why we continually expand our network of diverse businesses to serve as integral members of our design teams; these collaborators help us build capacity and produce better work for our clients. We are taking a profound look at how we foster equity internally and within the architecture community at large.

Resources
At the end of each post, we’ll share what we’ve been reading, watching, listening to, and discussing within our Social Justice Reading Group. Understanding that everyone learns differently, we’ll provide a range of resources from short articles and podcasts to YouTube videos and films, and we encourage you to share resources as well.

“Remembering Whitney M. Young Jr.’s Landmark Speech,” Mimi Zeiger, Architect magazine
“America’s Cities Were Designed to Oppress,” Bryan Lee, Jr., Bloomberg City Lab
“Architects, Designers and Planners: #BlackLivesMatter and You Must Spea Up!”, Michael Ford, Azure
“The Arsenal of Exclusion,” 99 Percent Invisible Podcast

Designing buildings that inspire connection and wonder in every person who experiences them.