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Ethics and Leadership Panel Gives Architecture Students Plenty to Ponder

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(L–R) Mimi Sullivan, executive director of the School of Architecture; Mallory Scott Cusenbery, architecture faculty and guest speaker; Jeff Oberdorfer, guest speaker and Jennifer Asselstine, B.Arch director. Photo by Bob Toy.

On Nov. 9, while rain drummed on the roof of the atrium at 601 Brannan Street, Academy of Art University architecture students listened to a compelling discussion about the importance of design and building practices that support social equity. School of Architecture Executive Director Mimi Sullivan moderated the event and introduced the presenters: guest speaker Jeff Oberdorfer—a housing, urban design and sustainability consultant—and School of Architecture instructor Mallory Scott Cusenbery, who is also a design principal at Ross Drulis Cusenbery.

Both architects provided examples of how working closely with community members, listening to and understanding their needs, and finding creative ways to engage them throughout the design process, yields positive results.

Oberdorfer, who said he’s always believed architecture should benefit the public, described getting his feet wet in participatory design as a young architect living in Cambridge in the early ’80s. 

“On one block, there were very wealthy people in three-story Victorians and a block over was Somerville,” he said. “Back then, it was a very poor neighborhood with lots of people who didn’t interact with each other. One day, I was sitting in my apartment looking at the blank wall of a market that needed repairs and painting, wishing that somebody would do something about it. All of a sudden, it clicked in my mind, ‘You’re an architect—why don’t you do something about it?’”

Oberdorfer came up with a mural design for the wall that replicated the colors, proportions and style of other houses on the block. He entered it in a design competition and won. He then hired neighborhood teenagers to paint the mural. But before they could begin, he got his first taste of dealing with government bureaucrats. The employment agency funding the project wanted to bring in art students from Boston to paint the mural. Oberdorfer eventually convinced them that this would be a mistake. 

Knowing that the rest of the neighborhood was watching them, the local teens were inspired to do their best work. The project garnered awards and also provided the young painters with more work. In addition, it taught Oberdorfer some key lessons about participatory design.

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Guest speakers Mallory Scott Cusenbery and Jeff Oberdorfer present during recent School of Architecture ethics and leadership panel. Photo by Bob Toy.

“First, these kinds of social issues come up in any community project,” he said. “Second, I think architects need to go out and start projects on their own. You can’t just wait for clients to show up.”

Cusenbery started his presentation with some equally sound advice. “Sometimes the best thing an architect can do is to be a little bit less of an architect,” he said. 

He described a planning meeting with Beats, Rhymes and Life, an Oakland organization that offers alternative hip-hop therapy for teens that took an unexpected turn. When he asked the youth involved with the project to choose words from a long list he’d helped them create to come up with a mission statement, they greeted him with blank stares. But their attitude changed when they broke into a spontaneous freestyle session. The end result was a mission statement that reflected their strong sense of ties to their community and their ambition. 

Cusenbery and his team used the mission statement to guide them throughout the design process. The new headquarters includes elements like a long, open therapy room that lets the teens see all the way through to a window that faces the community. One part of the room has high ceilings and a skylight where they can “reach for the sky,” their phrase for describing their ambition. 

“The attitude for designing this project wouldn’t have come to us had we not gone this participatory route,” said Cusenbery. “We wouldn’t have thought of it as architects sitting at our desks.” 

At the end of the presentations, Sullivan read questions submitted earlier by students and faculty, and also took questions from the audience. 

When asked about the relationship between social equity and sustainable development, Cusenbery replied that the same principles underlying the approach to sustainability in the environment can also be applied at the social level. “If you start out with a more level playing field where everyone’s voice is heard, design can emerge organically out of the community and have a better chance of being more sustainable.”