How to design responsively for the future? Perhaps we need less design, says editor of The Architect’s Newspaper

With an overview of the architecture profession, editor Aaron Seward answers questions about the post-pandemic future of public space


As editor in chief of The Architects Newspaper, Aaron Seward has the catbird seat on the architecture profession.

Before taking the position last August, Seward, a native of Houston, spent six years as editor of Texas Architect, the Austin based magazine by and for the Texas chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

Seward brought a critical and creative edge to the Texas publication. He rejected the profession’s tradition of “golf-clap writing” about architecture, the polite, collegial but tepid  “accepting without question (what) it purports to review.”

Aaron Seward
Aaron Seward. Photo: Texas Architect

In his editor’s notes and other articles he brought not just a critical voice, but a refreshing openness. Seward wrote about how he loved the modest Austin rental house he lived in. He called the plethora architect’s self-published books “overgrown marketing brochures with more bloviating than reliable and interesting information about the projects they document.” And once, instead of the usual architecture conference summary, Seward penned a poem.

“If architecture does not change with it, it stands a chance of losing touch with the people for whom it designs. It stands a chance, in fact, of not having any clientele at all,” he wrote in 2018.

Seward was still in living Austin and working remotely with the New York-based Architect’s Newspaper when he answered our questions.

Tell us about what kind of public places we should be designing for the post-pandemic world?

Aaron Seward: I’m not certain the pandemic really changes the picture in terms of the kinds of public places we need. Post-pandemic we’ll need all the same sorts of public places we needed before: parks, libraries, courthouses, museums, stadia, transit stations, sidewalks, etc.

Classroom learning in the Temporary Tiger. Photo by Leonid Furmansky
Classroom learning in the Temporary Tiger, an outdoor classroom designed by Murray Legge for Little Tiger Chinese Immersion School in Austin. It was designed in a few days, engineered in a few weeks, and built for around a few thousand dollars.  Photo by Leonid Furmansky

What the pandemic changes is how we occupy these places, particularly enclosed places, during times of contagion. We’ve seen that physical distancing and masking are effective ways of reducing the transmission of airborne diseases, and we also know that well ventilated spaces full of natural light are more healthy than hermetically sealed environments. Remember, sick building syndrome was a well known phenomenon long before COVID, as was the cure for sick building syndrome: optimal daylight and proper ventilation. So hopefully post-pandemic we’ll see public spaces built with more of those things, as well as less reliance on air conditioning, which has an environmental benefit as well.

What do you wish we had in place in our cities before COVID?

AS: Civil societies that are not so polarized by virulently schismatic political cultures. Our main problem as a nation in the face of the pandemic has been disinformation about what is the right thing to do to protect oneself and one’s loved ones, not so much the built environment, though that could use some improvement, too. Tragically, the rise of this virus, rather than drawing the nation together with one common purpose, was used to drive us further apart by people at the highest levels of power in the government and the media.

Are you seeing conversations in the architecture profession change based on conversations about public health and equity?

AS: Yes and no. Public health has always been central to architectural discourse, going back at least to the Code of Hammurabi in the second millennium B.C.E., which says something like, “if a builder constructs a house for someone and does not build it properly and that house topples and kills its residents then that builder shall be put to death.”

These days our laws are not quite that severe, but regulation does mandate a certain level of public responsibility. Here in the U.S., architects are required to do continuing education in order to maintain licensure and of the 18 credits they’re required to earn during any given year 12 have to be along educational tracks related to health, safety, and welfare. So the pandemic only added a slight tweak to ongoing conversations about public health, mostly related to how to organize spaces like offices or retail environments to accommodate safe cohabitation with other individuals who might be infected, e.g. spacing, ventilation, sunlight.

Architecture is a mostly white, male profession whose privilege can make it difficult for them to understand the needs of the poor, women, people of color

The conversations around equity, however, have changed a lot, or, rather, conversations that had been percolating among certain mostly academic circles for decades have been amplified by recent happenings outside of architecture: Me Too, the murder of George Floyd by police, and Black Lives Matter. We could also include in that list the migrant/refugee crisis on our southern border. In the face of these upheavals, architects are talking about how to change the profession’s demographics. Architecture is a mostly white, male profession whose practitioners come from the upper and middle classes — in short, a demographic whose historical privilege can make it difficult for them to understand the needs and experiences of vast swathes of the population: the poor, women, people of color, etc.

The trending thought, or I should say the trending messaging in architectural practice now is that if the profession is to serve the public properly and design an equitable built environment it must resemble that public demographically. So there’s a drive to cultivate more diversity among architects, or at least talk like that’s something they care about and are trying to do.

How do you prioritize users voices when designing public space?

AS: This is another big part of current architectural discourse around issues of equity and it predates the social upheavals of the past few years by a couple decades.

Architects these days like to talk about themselves not as creative geniuses who solve the world’s problems with building solutions, but as collaborative partners in a collective endeavor who play a role akin to an orchestra conductor, coordinating and synchronizing the diverse needs of stakeholders. This is done by hosting public meetings and design charrettes where people weigh in on projects, offering their opinions on what they entail, how they function, even how they look. All of this public input is then put together to form a consensus — often right there in person with the architects sketching while people are talking — and the building that results is not so much a singular vision but a brick-and-mortar condensation of collective hopes and dreams. That’s the idea anyway.

Architecture, of course, doesn’t just come from collective hopes and dreams. It also has to contend with things like gravity and wind and rain. In the U.S. it’s also largely constrained by building codes that can take a lot of fun out of the process and the end product. And then there’s money and the rising cost of just about everything.

It must also be said that some public design charrettes are intentionally subverted by, for example, scheduling them during times when most people can’t attend because they’re working, or not widely advertising the public review period, etc. so that developers or governments can say they took the public’s concerns into consideration when in fact they did not.

Pease Park
In Pease Park, water from a spring and rain run-off flows through limestone steps planted with pollinator friendly Eastern gamma grass and other riparian plants. Depending on rainfall amounts, the flowing water will also be visible to parkgoers. Landscape architect Christine Ten Eck calls it ‘a green sponge.’

What does Austin/Central Texas need more or less of in terms of built public space? And how do we plan gardens/streets/parks/plaza to be responsive to future changes?

AS: Well, in my humble opinion, as a lone white man on a laptop, I’d say we need more parks, more affordable (public) housing, more trails and mass transit options, more libraries that are actually full of books, more places to swim, more trees, fewer freeways, fewer parking lots, fewer walls and fences, more urbanism, less suburbanism, more places to purchase and grow food.

Related: ‘Edible Cities: What would our cities look like if agriculture was systematically integrated into the urban fabric?’

As for how we design to be responsive to future change, counterintuitively I’d say we need less design in general. The more something is designed, the more closed and constrained it can become, the more resistant to change, the more embedded in particular identities, the more prone to calcification and destruction in the face of change. In this way, I favor weakness over strength. To borrow a popular phrase from football broadcasting, what happens when the unstoppable force meets the immovable object? Well, shit blows up.

Confederate statues on the UT-Austin campus
A crew takes down Confederate statues on the University of Texas at Austin campus just after midnight on Aug. 21, 2017. Bob Daemmrich for The Texas Tribune

Think of Aesop’s fable of the oak and the reed. When a strong wind comes through, the flimsy reed bends and comes out no worse for wear, whereas the oak splinters and falls down dead. Or think of a strong, highly particular, thoroughly designed and identity based public monument like the equestrian statue of a Confederate general. What happens when an entire society wakes up and realizes just how offensive and in what poor taste that monument in fact is? Well, it’s time for the smelter, or the very different context of a museum of African American history and culture.

I am a big fan of Austin’s classic public spaces Zilker Park and the Barton Springs Pool. Think of how little design is involved in those places, and yet how wonderful and versatile they are. What does each do successfully? They provide access by the simplest of means to widely valued resources: a ring road connecting to a great lawn, a constructed edge connecting to a spring-fed pool. From those very basic designed and constructed elements—and, like, for real, these places can’t be improved upon — a multitude of possibilities can be enacted by a diverse range of actors now and in the future.

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin
Jeanne Claire van Ryzin
An award-winning arts journalist, Jeanne Claire van Ryzin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Sightlines.

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