Trusting the Body, Embracing Collaboration, and Finding Joy in the Design Field
by Josías Salvador and Anna Carlsson
“This is an intervention. A message from that space in the margin that is a site of creativity and power, that inclusive space where we recover ourselves...Marginality as a site of resistance. Let us meet there. Enter that space.”
-bell hooks, “Choosing the Margin as a Space of Radical Openness”
bell hooks exhorts us to meet in that inclusive space in the margins, where we can recover ourselves, practice creativity, and find power. The six participants in the panel event, “Hidden Figures: The City, Architecture and the Construction of Race and Gender,” affirmed that when we heed that call to meet in the margins, we realize that the figures deemed “hidden” by dominant institutions are both visible and visionary in their communities--and to anyone who looks beyond the colonized core design syllabus. As students and practitioners, we are grateful to the designers and teachers in our lives who, like the event’s panelists, open up alternative worlds for us, worlds of trust, self-determination, collaboration and joy.
Queer, Trans, Indigenous, Black, women of color in architecture, planning, and design have long existed in the margins of Western academia, despite their contributions to the built environment. However, in these margins, their contributions have challenged and proposed alternative futures of built spaces. The panel, held on April 23, 2021, was a space created for Queer, Black, Indigenous, Asian, and Latinx women of color to engage with questions of resistance and transformational design work. As part of the panel, Roberta Washington, Jessie Hemphill, Dr. Lily Song, Kristen Jeffers, Marcela Pardo Ariza, and Lu Wenyu offered up knowledge that challenges the dominant narratives of the built environment. These six panelists theorize and practice design in ways that transcend the rigidly constructed boundaries of the field’s disciplines. They also dissolve the manufactured dividing lines between the personal, political, creative, and professional selves, making space in their work for internal diversity, engagement with power, and experimentation. Facilitated by Professor Hansy Better Barraza and followed by a generative student-led question-and-answer session, the event fostered virtual togetherness, knowledge-sharing, reflection, learning, and critique.
In Hidden Figures, students engaged with feminist, intersectional, and anti-capitalist critical theory, questioned heteronormativity, white supremacy, and patriarchy in design education, and challenged themselves to reimagine authorship of the built environment beyond the names traditionally found on core architecture, planning, or landscape architecture syllabi. The students’ final creation, “Transforming the Timeline,'' is an online archive of QTBIPOC women in the design fields, entangled within threads of land, artivism, indigeneity, corporate practice, and more.
While the course and subsequent event are titled Hidden Figures, this term is problematized by the subjectivity in its perspective. The contributions of QTBIPOC women are given the status of ‘Hidden Figures’ as their identity and work exist in a climate of whiteness, heteronormativity, and capitalism-- their work is seen and powerful in the communities they form a part of. From Roberta Washington’s powerful introductory lecture to the panel, highlighting the work of ten Black women architects of the 20th century, we know that remembering, too, is a political act. “Hidden figures” live on for generations in community memory, but go unacknowledged in histories claiming to be authoritative yet written in the shadow of institutions formed by class, race, and gender hierarchies. The marginal space in which these figures’ contributions arise forms a site for the learning and unlearning of design and architecture. With an understanding of the body as a site of knowledge, community and mutual aid, and intersectional joy, this conversation makes a case for marginality as a site of resistance.
I. “Trust the body’s barometer.” -Jessie Hemphill
Centering the marginalized body--and its position in space, both social and physical--as a site of knowledge production was a key starting point for the panel. As Patricia Hill Collins instructs in The Social Construction of Black Feminist Thought, the racialized and gendered body contains knowledge that is not found anywhere else, generating forms of proximate truth far from the artificial distance imposed in positivist Western methodologies of knowledge production. QTBIPOC women in design use this knowledge and community forms of knowledge production to imagine the futurity of spaces, envisioning liberation from the pressure of colonialism, patriarchy, and heterosexuality. In discussing her community facilitation work and indigenization practice (revitalizing planning practices indigenous to First Nations communities) Gwa'sala-'Nakwaxd'axw planner Jessie Hemphill invited us to trust communal knowledge, our own somatic responses, and to reflectively foreground self-determination. Trusting community knowledge and supporting self-determination are also foundations for Lily Song’s planning practice. Song, who identifies as a movement-aligned reparative planner, warned that dominant practices of “individualistic knowledge and cultural production” are draining and shortsighted. Instead, how can we “uphold our own creative agency and internal diversity on our own terms, in ways that serve us and bring in more from margins to the center?”
Hemphill credited her nation and elders for her initial planning education, and Song described her early gravitation to Black radical, feminist, and indigenous mentorship, highlighting another theme across the panel--the importance of intergenerational knowledge sharing and mentorship--and undermining the myth of individualism in design work.
II.“Move beyond one-time transactions to long-term collaborations... [Unlearn] together and create something together” -Marcela Pardo Ariza
Community and collaboration is essential to decolonial work and reconstructing the built environment-- our work affects others in how they move through space. Whereas Western architecture and planning is concerned with individualism, the marginal site in which racialized and gendered bodies are placed allows for collaborative work and mentorship.
Lu Wenyu’s project in the Wencun Village, China points to the effectiveness of community and coalition building. The project centers on improving the homes of over 100 working class households. In carrying out this large scale project, Wenyu focuses on remodeling homes in accordance to the needs of the residents. Rather than demolishing every home in the village, some Wencun residents ask to keep older parts of their homes and add to these existing structures. Community design integrates those that have historically been kept out of creative decision making.
In this vein, Marcela Pardo Ariza invites us to think about communal aid and mentorship as a grounding practice for existing in the margin. Intergenerational mentorship and collaborating brings in multiple identities and experiences that must be represented. Marcela Pardo Ariza’s work at Art Handlxrs*, a collective “dedicated to the support and growth of BIPOC, queer, non-binary, and trans people, and womxn* in the professional arts industry as preparators, art handlxrs, technicians, fabricators'' looks at building these mutual aid spaces. While QTBIPOC have been hidden from popular discourse, their epistemologies on decolonial design have survived in the outskirts for so long. From our ancestors, we receive guidance to exist while being in the settler state. In working in community and learning from our ancestors, we remember and honor the labor that goes into the project of decolonizing design and the construction of the city. We also open opportunities for the future generations that carry on the legacies of this work.
III. “Keep being your beautiful self.” -Kristen Jeffers
Through practices of curiosity, creativity, community and storytelling, panelists invited listeners to find joy in their design work and beyond, reminding us that joy can be a radical act of self-preservation in a system built on deficiency and urgency, especially when practiced in marginal spaces. Kristen Jeffers encouraged students to assert their creative selves in school, to discover “what you love to make” while always being mindful of the context of their project sites. Knowing where one finds joy can also be a guiding light in times of uncertainty, especially when grappling with questions of understanding how one can or should contribute to a particular site or project. This dynamic is not limited to design work, per se; gender expression too can be a form of joyful resistance to “Western, eurocentric, and capitalist demands” on the self, as queer experiences reflect.
Embracing intersectional identities and experiences empowers designers to create joyfully and authentically in the face of oppression. For the early Black women architects whose stories Roberta Washington shared, racism and sexism worked together as obstacles to practicing self-expression through the discipline of architecture. Washington’s archival project, which documents the work of historic Black women architects (many erased from textbooks), is itself driven by Washington’s own curiosity and amazement at the Black women who came to the architecture profession in the early 20th century, despite lack of mentorship and other challenges. Their commitment to journeys of self-expression encourage us to build worlds in which we and others thrive, creatively and in joyful community with each other.