May 25, 2022Students Study Civil Rights, Authority and the Public Form to Design for the Public Good
Students in an Integrations studio in spring 2022 did more than design. They did more than iterate. And they did much more than study a project site. Students in Anne Marie Duvall Decker’s 4th-year Architecture studio deeply immersed in authority that is embedded in architecture and rethought the nature of empowerment through public form. Their impetus? A library.
Public libraries were designed to be places of knowledge but also of community gathering and equalizing. With the advent of handheld knowledge, read: smartphones, the library’s power is both diminishing and receding as the community spaces they once were.
With the loss of the library’s primary function, the larger promise of the institution as the most democratic meeting and service space is now unfulfilled. Students were challenged with a proposal: If we allow ourselves to realize it may be more important than ever to promote civic debate, we may need a place that brings us together. We may need a place that allows us to radically re-consider the nature of what “public” and “equity” may really mean.
Anne Marie Duvall Decker, FAIA, founding principal of Duvall Decker Architects and a spring 2022 visiting professor of practice in our School of Architecture, led her students through a series of enlightening experiences. “It has been my pleasure to work and spend time with each and every one of my students this semester,” she said. “They engaged deeply in the readings, discussions, field trips and assignments, and they exhibited, through their individual projects, a broad set of perspectives on the studio’s challenge. It was a difficult challenge, to rethink the nature of public form and propose libraries to empower the community and its individuals, but each student addressed the challenge with sincerity and hope that I believe will benefit the future of our profession.”
The field trip in February was a life-changing experience for students. The studio toured many civil rights centers in Alabama and Mississippi, including The Legacy Museum, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, Southern Poverty Law Center and Civil Rights Memorial, the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the Mississippi Library Commission and Tougaloo College’s Woodworth Chapel and Bennie G. Thompson Center, on their way to the project site: Museum of Mississippi History and Mississippi Civil Rights Museum and the nearby public library in Jackson.
Students’ design responses were far reaching. Josh Price, a rising 5th-year Architecture student who will enter the college’s 5+1 program in fall, opted to integrate urban murals related to civil rights. “These murals are an opportunity for artists to express themselves and others in and around the Jackson area,” Price said. “The murals are painted on large concrete walls that begin to fill the site with color and expression. The walls then become the architectural base for the rest of the building and help form the spaces for program that is designed to help the demographic of the surrounding area.”
Laura Miller, who also will enter the 5+1 program, approached the challenge by dismantling authority and replacing it with a focus on community and health. “For my project, I was looking at Jackson’s public access to green space, exercise opportunities, health facilities, community makeup and publicness that would challenge the structure of authority in the two museums that our site stood opposite of,” Miller said. “This research made my project just as much about creating an open and welcoming atmosphere and spaces for exercise and healthy activities, children’s play and community gatherings as it was about access to knowledge.”
Rising 5th-year student in the School of Architecture, Abram Harris focused on water as a symbol of segregation and to reflect current accessibility issues as he redistributed authority on the site. “My project plays the part of architecture but serves a more infrastructural role with my building and urban design constructed to collect and redistribute water and therefore authority back to the residents who need it,” Harris said. “This studio’s subject matter was so important because it plays into the role of the progressive architect and how ignoring that role would be to ignore the history of segregation and ongoing unequal access to basic human rights in Jackson. If a project isn’t affirmative in its consideration towards the individuals who can’t afford it—those it isn’t ‘meant to serve’—it will only push these individuals to the margins.”
Price had a similar reaction. “The subject in the studio remained the highest priority because of its importance not only to the history of the U.S. and Mississippi but also to the current issues we face today,” he said. “Civil Rights is still an ongoing issue, and because us architects design for people, we must be fully engaged and aware of our surroundings and their pasts. I feel more skilled and prepared to address the hard political and socioeconomic issues that we face in this country. This studio taught me to be patient and listen to the site and people before making an architectural move.”
Miller learned about “good design that was smart, purposeful, and impactful. This studio had me thinking about the actual tactile experience of walking into the building and will continue to make me think in detail about this as I move forward in my career.”
Our students were faced with meeting a 2030 challenge to design a public site or building in the deep South that connected to its natural environment, addressed biodiversity and promoted social equity and a place for everyone. They studied more than the project site; they also immersed in demographics, the community, local history and culture. They engaged with guest reviewers throughout the semester. In the end, their intentionality and sincerity led them to not only design unique proposals that challenge misused authority in the public form but also to come away as more mature designers ready to face similar challenges in the world as they seek design for the public good.