The measure of good design

In Sam Fox School, rigorous design, socially engaged practice go hand-in-hand

Cierra Higgins (left) in Shaw and Tianna Williams in Dutchtown. (Photos: James Byard/Washington University)

With its tree-lined streets and stately architecture, Shaw is among St. Louis’ oldest and most elegant neighborhoods.

It is also among the city’s most integrated. According to U.S. Census data, in 2010, Shaw’s population was 51.7 percent white and 41.9 percent black.

But neighbors can be feet away and worlds apart.

“In Shaw, segregation is social rather than spatial,” said Cierra Higgins, who is pursuing dual master’s degrees in architecture and urban design in the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts at Washington University in St. Louis.

Last fall, Higgins spent months researching and exploring Shaw as part of “Segregation by Design.” The class — developed by assistant professor Catalina Freixas and Mark Abbott of Harris-Stowe State University, with funding from The Divided City initiative — helps students investigate both the historic mechanisms and contemporary realities of urban division.

“Architecture is about more than designing buildings,” Freixas said. “It also has an economic, environmental and a social agenda.  The built environment we see around us is the consequence of specific design and planning decisions. Once students understand how things went wrong, they can also understand how things can be improved.

“As architects, we talk a lot about form and design,” Higgins added. “But understanding a place, diving into its history, getting to know residents — that’s how you implement real change.

“And that’s something we don’t see enough of in our profession.”

Building typologies in Shaw. (Image courtesy of Cierra Higgins, Ashley Holder, Danning Liang and Suyin Yao)

The first step

A few miles south of Shaw is Dutchtown, a working-class area known for charming, Bavarian-influenced structures that reflect generations of German (“Deutsch”) immigrants.

But in the 1960s and ‘70s, Dutchtown, like many parts of St. Louis, underwent a profound demographic transition. Affluent whites left for the suburbs, decimating commercial districts. Property values fell, poverty rose, vacancies increased. In response, the city and longtime residents formed neighborhood associations to stabilize blocks, rehabilitate properties and return Dutchtown to its former glory.

Today, Dutchtown is St. Louis’ most densely populated neighborhood, and among the most statistically diverse: roughly 50 percent African-American, 35 percent white, 9 percent Hispanic/Latino and 6 percent Asian-American. But as in Shaw, raw numbers can mask internal divisions.

“An area might sound diverse, but do people actually engage one another?” asked Tianna Williams, who is pursuing a master’s degree in architecture. “Do they really interact?”

To find out, Williams and classmates Katy Karl and Nicholas Gori began interviewing residents. Older respondents emphasized personal history and family ties. One newcomer to gentrifying Dutchtown West embraced socioeconomic diversity; another seemed hostile and aloof. A young African-American man, born and raised near Marquette Park, called for jobs and social opportunities.

“Architects and designers create physical spaces, but we also ignite conversations,” Williams said. “That’s the first step.”

“You’ve got to understand the community you’re designing for.”

Building typologies in Dutchtown. (Image courtesy of Tianna Williams, Katy Karl and Nicholas Gori)

‘Signaling that we made it’

Higgins, who currently lives in Shaw, also interviewed residents, as did classmates Ashley Holder, Danning Liang and Suyin Yao.

Most respondents noted Shaw’s progressive politics and praised gatherings such as the Historic Shaw Art Fair and the International Institute’s Festival of Nations. But where white residents extolled restaurants and private schools, black residents noted rising prices, rocky police relations and selective code enforcement.

One volunteer at the Shaw Community Center, who moved to the neighborhood in 1975, recalled a harrowing childhood incident in which Klansmen tossed a Molotov cocktail into her back yard.

Walking to school, “my grandmother would stand there with a shotgun, waiting to see us make it up the street,” she told Higgins. As the children turned the corner, an older woman who lived near the school would wave back, “signaling that we made it.”

Design for people

Heather Woofter, director of the Sam Fox School’s College of Architecture and Graduate School of Architecture & Urban Design, noted that a commitment to social engagement goes hand-in-hand with rigorous design education at the Sam Fox School.

“Design is a critical tool, but the challenges of the 21st century — global warming, environmental justice, the need to create healthy, resilient cities — will not be solved by design alone,” Woofter said. “The question is: Who and what are you designing for?

“Our students learn to design for access, for equity, for conservation and for sustainability,” Woofter added. “But most importantly, they learn to design for people.”

With the support of its Office for Socially Engaged Practice, the Sam Fox School offers a wide variety of community-oriented classes, service programs and research projects. In addition to Segregation by Design, these include the Urban Development Seminar, which works with community partners to address local challenges; the Materials Research Seminar, which explores the environmental and social impacts of building materials; and the Alberti Program, a studio workshop — and recent American Institute of Architects  honoree — for young St. Louisans, offered in partnership with PGAV Destinations.

“By collaborating with campus partners, local advocates and government programs, our students have tackled issues like health-care delivery, education access and water quality,” Woofter said. “These are important initiatives that impact real communities around the world.

“Design starts at the human level.”

Mitigation strategies for Shaw would include establishing a land trust to purchase and renovate both multifamily and single-family homes. (Image courtesy of Cierra Higgins, Ashley Holder, Danning Liang and Suyin Yao)

The measure of a designer

Back in Shaw, Higgins and her classmates formulated a series of recommendations to promote affordable housing and community engagement.

For example, “We noticed a lot of multifamily buildings are being flipped into single-family homes,” she explains. “This changes the nature of who gets to live there. Gentrification forces working-class families out.”

To mitigate this, a nonprofit land trust could acquire and maintain multifamily rentals. In addition, the trust could purchase and resell single-family homes to low-income buyers. Should those buyers move, the homes could be sold back to the trust at a predetermined rate of appreciation, helping to keep the neighborhood affordable.

Meanwhile, the Dutchtown group suggests building on existing amenities such as Marquette Park, the Thomas Dunn Learning Center and the Community Recreation Center.

“Sometimes it’s just the simple things — increasing hours, bringing the pool back to life, improving lighting and traffic control,” Williams explained. “In our interviews, people were excited about the neighborhood, and constantly talking about ways to share their cultures and backgrounds. We just have to help them realize that potential.

“I’ve heard architects talk about ‘fixing’ communities,” Williams added. “Architects may have certain tools, but people know their own communities better than we do. We’re here to assist.”

Higgins concluded: “As an architect, you have to be knowledgeable about a lot of different subjects, but you also have to be able to collaborate with other people.

“That’s the measure of a good designer.”

Mitigation strategies for Dutchtown would include revitalizing Marquette Park. (Image courtesy of Tianna Williams, Katy Karl and Nicholas Gori)
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