Can We Design for Social Change?

UMASS ARCH LECTURES SP 15Studio G’s Founder and Managing Principal, Gail Sullivan, recently presented a stirring lecture to the students and faculty of the Umass Architecture community on the topic of design and social change. Drawing from her own background in feminist, environmental and international organizations, Gail described her unique path to the profession – which began, quite fittingly, as an undergraduate at UMass Amherst in the 1970’s. A few years after receiving her M.Arch at MIT, she founded Studio G Architects to design people-centered, sustainable buildings and urban places that promote progressive social change.

Here are a few nuggets of inspiration from Gail’s great talk:

“Looking beyond Studio G, I’d like to reflect on the community of architects of which you are a part.   I think most architects and designers begin with aspirations for making the world a better place. HOWEVER, too often in practice, people get caught up in the notion that they have to do what the clients want or need. This becomes an excuse for not doing the right thing. For instance, why design more luxury condos in Boston’s Seaport which we don’t need, or more and larger prisons that dehumanize their inhabitants, or 20,000sf houses for a family of 3? Does it make sense to design Disneyesque villas in China and the UAE??

Gail Sulivan. Photo credit: June Lee

Gail Sulivan. Photo credit: June Lee

So I offer a provocation for you: We as designers – people with the skills to shape the world around us – have a higher calling. I think that design excellence should be judged not only on aesthetics but also on how it responds to a few of the most important goals facing us as human beings in the 21st century:

  • social justice and equality
  • peace at home and globally
  • ecology/protection of this one blue planet we inhabit

I urge you to take the power you have as a designer, a shaper of the human environment and therefore the human experience, and use it to move toward the right goals, those with long term value for communities, our planet, and use it every day in your practice —to make the world a better place.”

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