(rendering of proposed state center, photo from mcgop.net)

I’m fortunate to be a participant in AIA Baltimore’s inaugural CivicLAB, a seminar series designed to acquaint emerging professionals with the economic, legislative, and civic contexts for the practice of architecture.  With Baltimore as our lense through which to examine these issues, we’ve been introduced to a gauntlet of inspiring local leaders in design, planning, and government.  Last week’s CivicLAB featured (among others) guest speaker Caroline Moore, the dynamic CEO of Ekistics.  Ekistics is the development half of the public-private partnership State Center project proposed for downtown Baltimore. Leaving the contentious lawsuit in which the project is currently embroiled untouched for the time being, what impresses me about the undertaking is the enormous scale at which Ekistics and its collaborators took on a totally participatory design process.

Participatory design describes an approach where stakeholders are brought to the table at the very beginning of a project, as an integral part of the schematic design process.  It requires the architect/developer to give up some control in favor of a more curatorial role, necessitates a complete commitment to common goals, and requires an often exhaustive process to determine what, exactly, those goals are.  


(photo from design corps summer studio)

My first experience with this approach to design took place on a much smaller scale, in an 8-week summer studio workshop in western North Carolina. Guided by Bryan Bell of Design Corps and a few other dedicated educators, 8 students (myself included) conducted a series of charettes (apologies to Ms. Moore for using a word she equates with “fake out”) intended to cultivate community buy-in to the bus shelter we designed and built.  The end goal was two-fold: produce a successful project that community members felt a part of, and teach emerging designers the basics of community-based design. Ultimately, the studio was only moderately successful in achieving the former, due in a large part to the transient nature of a summer student project, but it did succeed in making a permanent imprint on my formation as an architect.

The State Center plan is a redevelopment proposal for what is currently a government office complex north of Mount Vernon in downtown Baltimore.  Surrounded by surface parking and four lane mini-speedways, this bureaucratic vortex effectively creates a black hole in a city composed of networks of neighborhoods.  The surrounding nine neighborhoods vary widely in terms of socioeconomic identity, and thus introduce a myraid of (often conflicting) interests to the design process. Creating an environment in which these various voices feel heard and recognized is no easy undertaking; Ekistics held 145 meetings with citizens alone over the course of the design process. The result, as Caroline Moore describes it, is a project where every piece of it is there because someone wanted it. The completed proposal was approved by City Council in an (up to this point) unheard-of 7 months, because in Ms. Moore’s words, if it hadn’t been approved, “they would have had people standing outside with pitchforks and torches.”

The lesson I took from this is that there are indeed people in this world who passionately believe that this is the right way to design public projects. That architecture that is sustainable and accessible breaks down the barrier between those who know and those who don’t, right from the outset. That with commitment and planning, it is possible to scale up the lessons I learned on a tiny student project in North Carolina, and apply them to real-world, real-time, real-money situations, bureaucratic red tape notwithstanding.  Well, I guess the notwithstanding part remains to be seen.