“Architecture as Community Practice” – Systems Thinking, Architecture, Community and Co-design with Steven Bingler

Two weeks ago, on July 29th, we kicked off the first in a series of free monthly webinars that we are hosting within the framework Capra Course. The Capra Course Webinars feature Fritjof in conversation with friends and colleagues about their work and life, and are facilitated by Phoebe Tickell, our Course Development Manager.

Our first guest in the series was Steven Bingler, the founder and CEO of Concordia, a community-centered engagement, planning and architectural co-design studio in New Orleans, Louisiana. Steven is an architect, but more than that, he works in deep collaboration with communities, facilitating processes of co-design so that the architectural spaces eventually constructed deeply serve the needs of the people that are using them.

It was a fascinating discussion which went into both what motivated Steven to do this work, and what motivates Concordia today. Since as far as he can remember, Steven has had a fascination with democracy and democratic process, and how countries are run (at least theoretically!) by an engine fuelled by its people. He has also had a long-term interest in interdisciplinary design and community design. Steven challenges the old notion of an architect as a lone pillar, making decisions in a top-down way and out of touch with the very people who will be living and utilising the space.

In this way, it is clear that the way Steven, and Concordia, practice architecture is very much aligned with the Systems View of Life. What is considered here, in the design of a building, is the whole system – and by sharing decision-making and coming from a place of collaboration, the way Concordia operates is not top-down, but indeed very bottom-up, and decentralised. There were many parallels between what Steven spoke about, and the topics covered in Capra Course, which Fritjof connected to throughout the conversation.

In the discussion, Steven uses the metaphor of ‘barn-raising’. In colonial times, people would come together and build barns together. There was no architect for the barn: the architect was the community. And each member of the community would bring a different essential component, whether it was the potato salad, or the wood for the construction! The community behaves like an ecology of architects – each bringing a different component to the diversity. An thus the result is also not just an end-product – but a complex system of relationships, shared culture, new economics, sustainability, education and learning, and experience.

Throughout the webinar, Steven cites and tells stories about various projects Concordia has undertaken over the years, explaining the processes of collaboration and community engagement that were undertaken. He talks about the Henry Ford Academy in Dearborne, Michigan – a school built within a museum, with glass walls, where school students and museum goers could interact and see each other, and share learning, and students were involved in the co-design process.

Then he talks about the an NGO sponsored community center in Houston, Texas called the Baker Ripley Center, designed with members of the migrant community who were going to be using the center. Lastly, he outlines a project where a city and school district collaborated on the development of an 8 acre site: the Emeryville Center for Community Life. Each case study exemplifies Concordia’s deep commitment to working with local communities, on the ground, to best serve their needs.

What is clear is that Steven (and in extension, Concordia) believe the best way to do architecture is with people, in collaboration, and specifically in collaboration with the people who might actually be using the building. He says “The experts of architecture are the people who are going to use them. “Architects are meant to be in service of those community needs.”

At the end of the conversation between Fritjof and Steven, we open up the floor to the listeners for questions. Some of the questions asked from the community included:

In your introduction you mentioned your focus and commitment to democracy. Can you elaborate a bit on how you see your work support and strengthen democracy?

How are you able to convince the stakeholders to see your value beyond architectural service, to be able to facilitate co-design processes? What type of service arrangement do you have to put in place?

How do you know when you have enough of the “community” engaged to feel that the decisions made is cutting across ethnic/socio-economic divides in a place?

In terms of “authentic participation”, is the process induced or organic, i.e. who would approach you – the community or an authority, of foundation etc?

Steven asked us to pass on some links for those who may be interested in reading more, which we include here:

www.concordia.com – the Concordia website

www.commonedge.orga non-profit organization dedicated to reconnecting architecture and design with the public that it’s meant to serve.

An article in Stanford Social Innovation Review on community design: https://ssir.org/articles/entry/creating_breakout_innovation

We are delighted with the success of our first webinar, and we look forward to the next one in the series. This will take place on 9th September at 17:00 PDT, with special guest Terry Irwin, Professor and Head of the School of Design at Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh.

Thank you Steven for joining us, and thank you to all those who connected in to the webinar live, and for asking such brilliant questions!

We hope to see you on our next Capra Course Webinar.

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Chris Burbridge