Design By listening
Since opening in 1998, Portland Community College's Metropolitan Workforce Training Center has helped thousands of people learn new skills and better position themselves for future employment. It's a valuable resource that helps people help themselves.
But the center's home base, in a former Safeway near Northeast 42nd and Cully, is not exactly welcoming. This concrete-block eyesore is nearly windowless, with a confusing layout for nervous first-time clients.
All of which makes the upcoming renovation an ideal test case for its designer, Bora Architects. Initially, at the request of the client, but enthusiastically taken up by staff, Bora is redesigning the Workforce Training Center after receiving training in what are known as Critical Race Theory and Design Justice.
Architectural licensure already requires annual continuing education courses to maintain proper technical knowledge. Think of this training as learning about social architecture and fine-tuning their listening skills.
Most importantly, the training makes for a better Workforce Training Center design.
"We've been looking at it as this framework for understanding that space is not neutral," explains Bora principal Amy Donohue of the training's key lesson. "We can't just say our designs have nothing to do with power structures and whether people feel welcome. It's actually quite involved in that. We're part of the problem, and I think — hopefully — part of the solution."
Critical Race Theory has been around for over 30 years, but mostly in academia and social sciences. It's an acknowledgment that race is about not just skin color but also the biases we've built into social, economic and legal systems. It's not unlike sports, where we know it's not just athletic talent that determines a game's outcome but — if we're honest — home-field advantage, teammate selection and refereeing.
Design Justice, a more recent movement, is all about giving marginalized communities a voice in the places they frequent. "It really invites them to be part of the design process," explains Donohue. "As architects, it's useful information: 'What is your lived experience in these spaces and what can we learn?'"
For the Training Center's lead architect, Jeanie Lai, the process has prompted design solutions. "It allowed me to think more broadly and from more perspectives: to consider everyone who might use the building or even walk by the building," she explains. "There is often a whole list of questions the typical architect may not be asking and should be."
Lai says designing without ego is part of what Design Justice teaches, particularly as it relates to buildings for institutional clients like Portland Community College. "Sometimes architects think, 'If I listen to their story, that becomes a directive on how to design,'" the architect explains. "It's not a how-to, though. It's, 'This is what I need.'"
One example is the added attention being paid to bus stops outside the Workforce Training Center. "It's not to say nobody thought about that before CRT, but it becomes a bigger part of the conversation," the architect explains. The same goes for interior design features like lighting, where the extra emphasis was paid to soft, indirect illumination to foster a calming atmosphere.
Cynics might argue that designers could arrive at such choices on their own: that this training only teaches common sense. The truth, however, like Bora's ensuing design, is actually more nuanced. Common sense or not, it never hurts to listen.
Brian Libby is a Portland freelance journalist, critic and photographer who has contributed to The New York Times, The Atlantic and Dwell among others. His column, Portland Architecture, can be read monthly in the Business Tribune or Online at: portlandarchitecture.com
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