Meetings with Remarkable Urbanists

About 12 years ago I discovered DESIGNER/Builder Magazine, a small magazine with a unique view into American design, which featured articles about such things as the cardboard box architecture of the homeless, and the architectural work of people like Prakash Nair, who designed spaces that inspired children to learn.

The Architecture of Change: Building a Better World Jerilou Hammett and Maggie Wrigley University of New Mexico Press
The Architecture of Change: Building a Better World
Jerilou Hammett and Maggie Wrigley
University of New Mexico Press

DESIGNER/builder approached design from the perspective of those that live in it, and gave voice to designers with a social conscience. This small, but mighty magazine eventually became part of The UTNE Reader, and then suddenly stopped printing when Kingsley Hammett, the inspired editor in chief and primary reported died prematurely in 2008.

And that was it, until last year when Jerilou Hammett called me with great news. Jerilou was Kingsley’s longtime collaborator and life partner, and with co-editor Maggie Wrigley, she had assembled some of the best articles from the DESIGNER/builder’s 15 year history into a beautifully bound hardcover called “The Architecture of Change: Building a Better World” (2013 University of New Mexico Press). Jerilou sent me a copy of the book, and I promised to review it.

If you have ever worked as a reviewer, you know that many if not most reviews are based on a quick skim of a few chapters and the summaries provided by the publisher. I had planned to the same with The Architecture of Change, but each time I skimmed through a chapter, I found myself returning to the beginning of that chapter to read it slowly and carefully, savoring each word and idea.

The book, like the quarterly journal that the Hammett’s used to publish, could also have been called “Meetings with Remarkable Urbanists.” In the pages of this wonderful book the Hammetts introduce the people who first coined ideas such as tactical urbanism, a better block, and parking day, but not as clever exploits of urban design theater – not the ones you already know – the originals that acted to solve intractable problems with real acts of architectural rebellion. To understand the origin of what urbanists now advocate as new, I strongly recommend spending time with the designers you may have never heard of that populate the pages of The Architecture of Change.

If you’re working with co-housing, read the chapter about the first co-housing neighborhoods built by immigrants in Radical Builders in the Bronx. Discover the origins of tactical urbanism by reading about the exploits of Steve Rasmussen Canacian, who helped African-Americans reclaim neighborhoods, not through redevelopment, but asserting their right to be black and beautiful on the street, despite the objections of gentrification forces in the chapter entitled “Sidewalk Living Rooms.”  Meet Patricia Moore, the champion of universal design, who realized architects needed to be anthropologists, as well as designers, and hired a top-notch makeup artist to help her become an 85-year-old woman and experience firsthand the limitations and humiliations of old age. She even attended an architectural forum in disguise, and discovered that — despite the conference’s explicit focus on meeting the needs of the aged — attendees were rude and out of touch with the very folk they were pretending to serve.

In many ways, The Architecture of Change serves as tonic to curb the common malady of architects as aspiring artists with a personal expression to showcase and a narrow design philosophy to champion. The Architecture of Change reminds us there exists a mature view of design as service to those that live in spaces we create. The children, adults and elderly. The largely poor and sometimes uneducated. And that place making is not a coffee shop, but the vindication of the real histories of the real places in which real people live, as Tom Klem shows us in the chapter, “Whose History Is It, Anyway?” Kingsley Hammett, who wrote most of the articles in DESIGNER/builder magazine, and hence the chapters of the Architecture of Change, was the “Studs” Terkel of urbanism, who sought out, chronicled and brought to life the stories of those architectural pioneers that lay the social foundation tactical urbanism.

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