Supporting a Sea Change in Architecture

February 15, 2021

Photo collage of portraitsCurrent DSJI fellows including, clockwise from top left, Nina Maritz, Kayin Talton Davis, Cleo Davis, Grace Aaraj, Logman Arja, and Craig Wilkins. 

In less than two years, the School of Architecture & Environment (SAE) has welcomed more than a dozen renowned architectural scholars and practitioners from around the world for the ongoing Design for Spatial Justice Initiative (DSJI)—and it’s left a lasting imprint on the school and Oregon at large.

“We need to have justice in all arenas. Period,” said Wilson Smith (BArch ’80), a senior designer at Nike and 2018 Lawrence Medalist, who is also a donor to the initiative. “The world of design needs to be inclusive because it involves everybody.”

Supporting the Design for
Spatial Justice Initiative

To learn more about supporting
the DSJI and other SAE efforts,
visit the SAE Giving page.

The Design for Spatial Justice
Initiative in the School of
Architecture & Environment is
supported by sustaining gifts from
The Miller Hull Partnership;
MG2; TVA Architects, Inc.;
LEVER Architecture; and
Wilson Smith, and with additional
support from Mayer/Reed, and
Paulett Taggart (BArch ’74).

DSJI and its fellows have delved into multiple areas, including:

The DSJI has also produced podcast and lecture series, giving direct voice to these fellows—researchers, designers, and activists—who are working at the intersection of gender, race, ethnicity, indigeneity, sexuality, and economic inequality.

“This initiative is about being able to take on the toughest problems in the disciplines by building capacity to fully support students and faculty to bring their lived experiences at the intersection of identity and design to the table,” said Erin Moore, SAE director. “The importance of the program is really summed up by the student who wrote about what it meant to study with a faculty fellow in the Design for Spatial Justice Initiative.”

Moore is referring to a SAE student who took Agha’s studio and, in spring 2020, filled out an anonymous DSJI survey, responding that it:

“Opened my eyes and helped me understand a lot of terms and topics I struggled with. There were times when I felt I was alone in this but being part of the studio and discussion made me realize that even though my struggle is my own, it is not unique to me. There are a lot of other people going through the same and it is amazing to have a platform to share that and to be heard and seen. As a student, it gave me hope. Hope that the future can be different, that beautiful positive changes are on the way, that we can dream of things to be different in our profession.”

This effort—to center the difficult conversations about equity and justice in the field of design—would not be possible without the generous sustaining gifts of alumni such as Smith and others, including TVA Architects, Inc.; The Miller Hull Partnership; MG2; and LEVER Architecture.

Photos of Mandy Butler and Wilson Smith
 Architect Mandy Butler and designer Wilson Smith 

Smith, who is also teaching an adaptive design studio for the Sports Product Design program this term, recalls being one of the few Black students in the architecture program in the late ’70s, and notes that he has not seen a significant change in the field since.

“I see this as an opportunity to change that,” Wilson said. “I want the opportunity to support more equality in any way that I can. This program is exciting for its opportunities.”

Architect Scott Wolf (MArch, ’89), FAIA, a partner at The Miller Hull Partnership, said the firm wanted to support the initiative because it aligns with the goals of their company, more specifically, he says, they want to commit to a diversity of voices within the practice and cultivate those voices from a young age.

Miller Hull, Wolf says, has long participated in programs—such as the Architecture Construction Engineering (ACE) Mentorship Program and the Summer Bridge & Open Studio programs for middle and high school students— that provide more opportunities and awareness to underserved communities in the architecture profession, but the events of 2020 including the police killing of George Floyd and the heightened awareness of systemic racism brought these goals into sharper focus.

“The events of the last 12 months have magnified that in a good way,” Wolf said.

Wolf points to The Missing 32% Project survey of 2014, which found that while nearly half of architecture graduates are female, only about 20 percent become practitioners and even fewer become partners. In this survey, many women respondents say the disparity is partly caused by a lack of role models who represent them.

Photo of Scott Wolf and Open Studios at Miller Hull
Architect Scott Wolf and The Miller Hull Partnership Summer Bridge & Open Studio program

“When you look at racial equity within the profession, the numbers are even worse,” Wolf explained. “The program that Erin Moore and the school started has been interested in the question: How can you begin to address that issue? It’s the whole idea of building a pipeline. You have to start getting people interested in this early as a profession. Bringing in fellows and faculty through this program to demonstrate to students that ‘I can see myself in that teacher. Yes, there is an opportunity for me.’”

Architect Mandy Butler (BArch, ’98), a principal at TVA Architects (founded by Robert Thompson, BArch ’77), says that it’s important for the firm, with many UO alumni, to stay connected to the school. TVA has also been committed to bringing underrepresented voices into the practice and field at large through education, participating in programs such as Architects in Schools, ACE, Girls Build, and Hip-Hop Architecture Camp. DSJI dovetails with the work TVA wants to continue to build on.

“I hope this initiative expands and changes the conversation. If we want a greater diversity of people to join the design profession, they need role models. Students need to see themselves in educators and leadership, and we all need more people thinking critically and asking difficult questions,” Butler said. “This is not about a built product; it’s about using design as a tool to solve problems. That’s what this program has the opportunity to do.”

She points to the renowned scholars that have already come to the School of Architecture & Environment.

“They are bringing ideas from around the country, from around the world, here,” Butler said. “We’re excited to see what emerges when students from the college’s varied design programs collaborate with faculty recruited for their focus on intersectional research. We think the results will be meaningful and inspiring.”

Smith looks forward to seeing how DSJI continues to grow and effect change in the fields of design.

“I’m excited that the UO is being intentional about diversity and equality  amongst students in the world of design,” Smith said. “That’s what we need institutionally, or in every area of the culture, is to have intentionality.”