Change the World Novena

Change the World (an Experiment)
hat would happen if the sphere of influence for architecture and urban design was extended to a broader community base? If average citizens, policy leaders, politicians and other community leaders understood how the built environment affects them and the active role they could play in shaping it?

Mission Driven
Like many of us, Leslie Nepveux was searching for deeper meaning in her career and not so much finding it in a traditional work setting. A casualty of a bad economy and the old experience conundrum (no one wants to hire you without it, but if they don’t hire you, you won’t get it), Leslie took the bold step of deciding that she wasn’t going to wait around for the career-defining experiences she wanted to come to her.  She ignored all of the conventional wisdom and wrote her own set of rules.  Then she went to Africa.

Making People Better
Pro Bono work is not a new thing for many architecture firms.  However the desire to consistently give back to the community is something much more rare.  I recently attended a presentation called Teach a Man to Fish  at the Healthcare Facilities Symposium and Expo in Chicago because I thought it would be interesting to get the presenters’ take on how architecture could empower a community.  The session featured an intern architect named Elise Drakes, and I soon realized that she was an example of how an architect can empower people, not just through a single effort, but through the way community service is a part of the way she lives her life.

The Big Write-off
It’s easy to be down on your rust-belt hometown.  Once-great cities of the Midwest have been brought to their knees by demographic shifts, the post-industrial economy and brain drain.  Or have they?  Jennifer Coleman, an architect, entrepreneur and lifelong resident of Cleveland, Ohio isn’t about to give up on her hometown just yet.  She has spent her career as a champion for revitalization, working at a grassroots and city leadership level to help Cleveland shine.

Neighborhood Building in the Northeast
Arturo Vasquez is passionate about the built environment.  As someone who has integrated his volunteer efforts seamlessly with private practice, Arturo is an example of how to be involved in your profession as well as your community- a model for how to change the world one place at a time. As someone who has been actively involved in urban redevelopment, Arturo has so many great stories to tell.  He understands how vitally important it is to be engaged in your community as an architect and as a citizen.  Anyone can be concerned.  There are lots of ways you can volunteer your time.  But when your life’s mission in the built environment, your efforts can be transformational. 

Of the People: A Culture Speaks
My friend and classmate at Carnegie Mellon, Will Riehm and I spoke recently about the fascinating research he has been doing on the study of design as an expression of cultural identity in the Acadian culture. His studies of the blended mix of race and language in pre-Civil War Louisiana led him to apply for and win a Delbert Highland Fellowship to study the culture at its source in western Africa. His six week visit to the Sen Gambia region between Senegal and Gambia provided some eye-opening insights into the past and future of place-making (read all about this on his blog

North American Sampler
As architects, we like to imagine ourselves as closet urban planners, perhaps even dabblers in landscape design.  We think that because we design the buildings in a city that that somehow qualifies us as experts in the “negative spaces” (note the condescending way we refer to it) around them as well.  To turn that whole notion on its ear, I asked transit planner Andre Darmanin to weigh in on the way that our roadways, in particular transit systems, define development.  It’s a real reversal in thinking as Andre loves architecture and most likely imagines that he could take on a bit of facade design now and again to enhance his planning work.  Andre has lived and worked in several North American cities, notably Los Angeles, CA and Toronto, Canada, and shares his thoughts on transit impacts on community development in those locations.

Like They Used To: Craftsmanship, Sustainability and Design
When you analyze what’s great about the great cities of the world, it often comes down to a collection of neighborhoods or districts that provide a set of experiences that we want to seek out again and again. Brad Cooper feels that it is critical to build awareness of the value of the old buildings contained in Cincinnati's historic downtown neighborhoods such as Over the Rhine, which is one of the largest intact urban historic districts in the United States. Brad realized that, while in school, students have access to wood and metal fabrication shops, but that that resource is cut off upon graduation.  There is also a dearth of skilled craftspeople.  He decided that providing the resource of rentable shop space could be combined with urban revitalization of abandoned industrial space. What emerged was the LIVE•MAKE project, an industrial arts center and business incubator that will provide housing and workshops, maker-in-resident studios (aka master craftspeople), light manufacturing studios and retail storefronts.

Phoenix Rising
As a city that experienced its boom after the widespread availability of the automobile, Phoenix is synonymous with sprawl.  Inner city neighborhoods arrange themselves in a ring of concentric circles, representing the insatiable desire to annex land.  In some ways this paid off for the city- they didn’t lose their tax base to “urban flight” as older cities in the east, but all this growth of questionable sustainability was built upon a central city that was slowly rotting from within. Phoenix City Councilman Tom Simplot and architect Luis Peris catch us up on Phoenix’s quest to combat sprawl with density and strategically revitalize core neighborhoods. They represent two distinctively different points of view- Tom comes from a real estate background and is a long-time active resident (we served together on the Housing and Neighborhoods Commission with back in the late ’90’s), while Luis is an architect, artist and engineer who relocated to Phoenix in recent years, and proceeded to become a highly engaged community member.