Rethinking Practice: Climate, Equity, Labor was a symposium organised at Columbia GSAPP by Adjunct Assistant Professor Alessandro Orsini, a co-founding partner of the New York-based office Architensions. Across three sessions, participants explored how the architectural profession can tackle contemporary societal and environmental urgencies.
If architecture has always represented an entanglement with politics and economy, being an expression of the established power and its aspirations; if the practice and pedagogy have often forgotten social ambitions unless they were aesthetic, functional, and technological expressions of the ruling doctrine; after the failure of the 20th-century main ideologies and after modern progress has been recognised as a homogenising force; now architecture can be understood as a political and economic device tackling the same societal and environmental issues it contributes to causing and enhancing: colonialism, patriarchy, gender discrimination, racial prejudice, politics and economies of extractivism and labour.
The Rethinking Practice symposium aims to investigate new settings for architecture practice and pedagogy, two structural fundamentals through which to apply a theoretical basis, in order to achieve a systematic and relevant advancement of the discipline. It does so by promoting a dialogue between some practices that radically investigate and tackle the role and structure of architecture. Their approach is not just based on a theoretical framework; it is also built through their practice, their modus operandi, based on working on civic engagement, new typological programs, materials experimentation, and architecture as an expression of workflow exploitation.
KOOZ Professional practice and pedagogy are the basis, the structural framework, to address any conversation between architecture and climate, equity, and labour. How do you tackle these issues as a practitioner and educator, and what is this symposium's historical and theoretical framework?
ALESSANDRO ORSINI The notion of professional practice — traditionally the space where design can be transformed into a building — has often been perceived as separated from the academic space, where an ecology of ideas and theories is fostered. They are, however, profoundly connected. To develop and transform a design idea into a building, architects resort to notions of aesthetics, siting, structure, environment, and social and cultural histories. As the discipline began to address how architecture has been used as an exclusionary tool throughout its history, we acknowledge its entanglement with climate change and fundamental labour issues, through the economic interests that have historically supported the built environment.
"As the discipline began to address how architecture has been used as an exclusionary tool throughout its history, we acknowledge its entanglement with climate change and fundamental labour issues."
- Alessandro Orsini, organiser of Rethinking Practice.
My design practice, which I co-lead with Nick Roseboro, is intertwined with teaching, resulting in a pedagogical approach that flows from the academic space to the practice and vice versa. In the office, there are a lot of conversations around the evolution of housing typologies that overcome the model of the traditional family for more diverse forms of kinship, or that reshape the space of the house towards a collective model. We think that a different way to occupy the domestic space is at the centre of addressing issues of inequality and climate. At the same time, as an educator, my studios and the professional practice seminar address the discipline's exclusionary dynamics, historically centred around white Western worldviews — if you consider, as a classic example, that the foundations of architectural theory are rooted in the Vitruvian man. These courses demand that we reclaim agency over the design processes, ethics, and the condition of labour under which architecture operates, also envisioning alternative forms of practice ranging from cooperatives, nonprofits, and research-based agencies.
"The symposium frames the disentanglement between architecture and politics at the base of the biases of the profession, intertwined with changing financial and technological regimes."
- Alessandro Orsini, organiser of Rethinking Practice.
The symposium frames the disentanglement between architecture and politics at the base of the biases of the profession, intertwined with changing financial and technological regimes. Paradigmatic of this condition is Paxton’s Crystal Palace (1851), an architecture suspended between an industrial-capitalist future and a colonised past, which became the symbol of progress at the end of the first Industrial Revolution. Similarly, after the Second World War, the modernist canon changed the architecture practice into a business model that commodified architecture, disconnecting politics and ethics to promote the parallel processes of colonialism, capitalism, and patriarchy that have shaped discourse within the practice and educational institutions ever since. The symposium enables conversations between practitioners, students and the public at large to interpret, reflect, and analyse spatial practice to reassemble it into alternative modes that form new connections among workers, architects, clients, and the built environment.
SESSION ONE: CLIMATE, EQUITY, LABOR
KOOZ The climate crisis is one of the main challenges of architecture, against which the approaches are various, from the innovative use of materials and technologies to (re)inventing typologies and how we inhabit architecture. The answer may not be a single solution but a mix of solutions. What is your design approach to this issue?
IVI DIAMANTOPOULOU / NEW AFFILIATES There is an optimism embedded in this question that I find intriguing, posing climate crises as a design problem. Through our work with New Affiliates we tend to look closely at those parameters with which we make architecture. Our standards of practice, if you will. We do so through making and participating in various economies of production and service (long-term, short-term, public and private, interiors and ground-up or new builds) and with an eye towards identifying one thing or another that makes little sense to us, and that is also promising — like a missed opportunity within a larger system, a hidden resource, a surplus that goes unnoticed.
We have worked on a few projects that begin with such observations on the byproducts or inefficiencies of practice. An exhibition that could be dismantled and distributed to new sites and users, or a scarred white cube gallery made of the leftover drywall from recent shows. The largest scale we’ve taken on is with Testbeds — a collaboration with historian Sam Stewart-Halevy and in partnership with NYC’s Parks Department — for which a visual mockup, made for a condominium in Tribeca, was turned into the cornerstone of a community structure in the Rockaways.
"We take on ecological thinking (or anxiety, really) through the design of systems that operate between two extreme scales: that of crafting new networks and that of designing atypical architectural details, to make multiple material lives possible."
- Ivi Diamantopoulou, New Affiliates
So in answer to your question, I'd say that we take on ecological thinking (or anxiety, really) through the design of systems that operate between two extreme scales: that of crafting new networks — of exchange, collaborators, participants, material flows, and resources — and that of designing atypical architectural details, to make multiple material lives possible, accommodate unlikely connections, and to plant the seed of aesthetic desires that escape the world of absolute seamlessness.
NICK ROSEBORO / ARCHITENSIONS Indeed, there is no single solution or approach to the climate crisis, it is rather complex, and architecture cannot be alone in the decision-making process. Therefore, at Architensions, we see architecture as a commoning process and require collaboration amongst many actors in different areas of expertise to move beyond the issues of our time. This process is central to helping solve interconnected issues regarding the climate crisis. The amalgam of urgent questions cannot exclude finding resolutions concerning labour, political implications and equity.
We promote and deploy a design and research ethos that concerns the commons and the collective in public space, culture, labour, and domesticity to address critical aspects of our society’s production and reproduction. This allows the concept of commons and the collective, emerging from a transdisciplinary lens, to nurture practices that can shape not just urban spaces but the architecture of the built environment, facilitating the accessibility to resources such as the right to housing, leisure, healthcare, education, work and food.
"We promote and deploy a design and research ethos that concerns the commons and the collective in public space, culture, labour, and domesticity to address critical aspects of our society’s production and reproduction."
- Nick Roseboro, Architensions
We have been working on projects that examine how some materials can be both locally sourced and locally manufactured, as well as projects in which the building design both responds to its current climate context and simultaneously achieves future goals. We continue to propose typological adjustments, promoting collective functions in both adaptive reuse and ground-up projects. We see architecture as a device to learn from and testing vital solutions through constructive collaboration and building techniques. The built environment needs to live with the earth, not against it; this is where the economics of the built environment come into play, where budgets stand in the way of new technologies and the reuse of traditional design methods. This advocacy must be pushed forward to fully engage with the conviction that commoning practices across disciplines will usher in change.
RITCHIE YAO / DASH MARSHALL At Dash Marshall, we emphasise the transformative potential of adaptive reuse and sustainable renovation work. Extending the life of structures allows us to balance the embodied energy in new materials with the need for spaces to adapt. Notably, our work on the Detroit Public Theatre showcases our dedication to adaptive reuse. This project involved converting a landmark garage building — one of the oldest in Detroit — into a modern theatre. It highlights our commitment to preserving historical structures while transforming them into contemporary, functional spaces. This aligns with our commitment to minimising environmental impact while addressing the evolving needs of our built environment.
Our dedication to environmental responsibility is evident in our experimentation with innovative building systems. The Wave House in the US Virgin Islands is a solar-powered, passively cooled, and rainwater-collecting residence. This project exemplifies our commitment to harnessing alternative energy sources and adopting passive design strategies to create spaces that operate harmoniously with the natural environment. Similarly, Micro Mix in Detroit, a passive house project under construction, sets a precedent for energy-efficient architecture.
"We emphasise the transformative potential of adaptive reuse and sustainable renovation work. Extending the life of structures allows us to balance the embodied energy in new materials with the need for spaces to adapt."
- Ritchie Yao, Dash Marshall
Furthermore, our studio consistently reimagines traditional housing typologies, focusing on the courtyard house and single-family dwellings. By prioritising the creation of healthier and more functional living spaces, we contribute to a paradigm shift in how we conceive and inhabit residential structures. This ongoing process of rethinking and evolution is integral to our commitment to sustainable architecture addressing the challenges posed by the climate crisis.
In conclusion, our design approach integrates the benefits of renovation, the exploration of environmentally conscious building systems, and the continual evolution of housing typologies. This multi-faceted strategy reflects our dedication to mitigating the environmental impact of architecture and contributing to a more sustainable built environment.
SESSION TWO: EQUITY, CLIMATE, LABOR
KOOZ Your projects are not just about designing spaces but also community engagement processes, imagining with the community what lives will happen and inhabit your architectures. Can you talk about your approach to work as an engagement and inhabiting process, towards processuality as a design methodology and as a way of sparking social relations?
JEROME HAFERD / BRANDT : HAFERD Despite being taught to consider architects as heroic single authors, architectural thinking is quite collaborative. A lot of our training and practice have to do with creating systems, be they visual, structural or organisational, that allow others to plug in and to participate.
Many of our projects sit somewhere between the realm of public space-making and the design of an object or structure. I think it comes naturally to me and to our team to use our skillset to make the design process more generous, and also more generative. Thus, our work over the last decade can be understood as a series of experiments in bringing other actors, other disciplines into the design process — and in creating different aesthetic and participatory systems to facilitate and celebrate that in the work. This is part of asking the question "How can we image local histories and subjectivities into the built environment more actively?"
"How can we image local histories and subjectivities into the built environment more actively?"
- Jerome Haferd / Brandt : Haferd
What began as gatherings or workshops, in some of the earliest projects, has evolved into more elaborate or robust engagements with one or multiple "protagonists" in the co-production of a work. In the Migrate (Harlem Renaissance Pavilion) project, the engagement was with a local painter, Thomas Heath. Instead of simply hanging his work in the structure, we allowed the idea of engaging a painter to fundamentally shape the architecture — which became a transparent facade printed with a composition of his work, which we collaborated with him to create. In later and more recent projects like Sankofa or the upcoming East River project, community members and other culture bearers are making artworks and multimedia collages with us, and offering contributions — a drawing, a photograph, a motif — which are literally incorporated and 'imaged' into the work. The next phase of the practice will be incorporating these ideas into a more expansive, productive, and exciting critique of Preservation, on how to imagine resilient cultural infrastructure and spatial futures in places like Harlem and nationwide.
BRYONY ROBERTS / BRYONY ROBERTS STUDIO I approach design as a fundamentally social practice. Creating a meaningful process is as important to me as creating the final built work. In designing projects for public spaces, I’m interested in fostering engagement across the entire lifespan of a project, from the initial conversations with a client through the long-term activation of the space once it's been constructed.
In my practice, community engagement begins with the research phase, as we speak with local residents and creators to understand the history and contemporary life of a place. We ask questions about what is working for local communities and what is not, and we seek input on how to improve existing public spaces. We continue to seek feedback during the design process, to understand if the proposed design is resonating with the people who will be using the space. In addition, we are constantly experimenting with materials and craft to create inviting and participatory environments that will enable prolonged and varied public engagement over time. The tactile and colourful materials that we use are chosen to draw people to the projects, inviting them to discover layers of cultural references and to interact with each other in new ways. The resulting projects aim to be both immersive and interactive, playful and contemplative, and offer a range of sensory and tactile experiences that can support a range of embodied experiences.
"I approach design as a fundamentally social practice. Creating a meaningful process is as important to me as creating the final built work."
- Bryony Roberts, Bryony Roberts Studio
ASHELY KUO & ANDREA CHINEY / A+A+AWe believe that projects contain stories that have yet to be told. We often think about this quote from Natalie Loveless’s book ‘How to Make Art at the End of the World’:
“Stories are powerful. The stories that we believe, the stories that we live into shape our daily practices from moment to moment. They have the power to promise some futures and conceal others. They encourage us to see some things and not others. Entrenched stories like ‘race’, ‘gender’, ‘class’, and ‘nation’ have historically done this very well, prescribing who might accomplish what, where, when, and how.”
The quote shows us the power of stories that we, as a society, assign to people and places — which then emphasises the amount of work it can take to change those narratives. Because of this, we try to begin our projects with listening, in order to build relationships, empathy and spaces for collaboration, as well as to create opportunities for knowledge that is outside of traditional canons. We often work with communities that are in one or more ways different from our own; engagement activities become our method to understand and translate the complex interactions, beliefs and values that already exist within these neighbourhoods or places.
"Engagement activities become our method to understand and translate the complex interactions, beliefs and values that already exist within these neighbourhoods or places."
- Ashely Kuo & Andrea Chiney, A+A+A
Our engagements, which vary from sketching and making conversations over food, help strengthen existing relationships while building new ones. They evolve with the projects and become an important communication line and feedback loop throughout the design process. Over time, these interactions inform a blueprint for design that guides us in creating spaces that can hopefully inspire belonging, ownership and pride for those who inhabit our projects. At the end of the day, we consider a project successful if the relationships we’ve created can endure and if the stories that spark from it have the power to generate opportunities for positive change.
SESSION THREE: LABOUR, EQUITY, CLIMATE
KOOZ How should practices be structured in order to oppose the problematics in the traditional architectural labour system and corporate framework, towards tackling contemporary societal urgencies?
NICHOLAS MCDERMOTT / FUTURE EXPANSION There are good labour practices and bad ones. At a minimum, offices should follow the laws about pay and workplace practices — but beyond this, they can also be testing grounds for different ways of working together. It takes a lot of work to design and construct a building and we should be thoughtful about the implications of what our designs set into motion.
My impression is that architects test alternative forms of engagement all the time in little and big ways, but we don’t often see it because it’s hidden within contracts and other instruments of practice. We should also experiment with strategies that can become models across practices. For example, why don’t we write specifications for labour like we write specifications for material? You can specify sustainably harvested wood products and track the cost of that decision in order to talk about value with your client. A similar specification strategy for labour could ask contractors to price labour no lower than a specific living wage. Requirements like that could be built into bidding documents like we do with material specifications, or when we write recycling requirements for the Contractor Notes on drawing sets. Something like that could develop into mechanisms that convert value-ambitions to value-decisions and also provide architects a way to measure impacts and trade-offs.
"We should also experiment with strategies that can become models across practices. For example, why don’t we write specifications for labour like we write specifications for material?"
- Nicholas Mcdermott, Future Expansion
In a rural development project, we decided to work with very local labour, which keeps money in the community. We’ve structured the sequence of projects from smallest and least complicated to larger and more complicated, so that the scaling of work over time corresponds to the learning curve of the team who haven’t done similar work before. Through repetition of building materials and detailing, we are hoping to create efficiencies that ultimately increase profit for the builder and lower project costs for the client.
AMELYN NG Architectural practice is inherently plural, collaborative, and interdisciplinary — yet it finds itself deeply entrenched in systems of labour extraction, private speculation, and corporatisation, especially as it takes on conventional office structures and clientele. I'm reminded of historian Aaron Cayer's work on the historic rise of corporate architecture firms in the US and their impact on the profession and labour; as an active member of The Architecture Lobby, Cayer also participates in the profession's ongoing unionisation efforts within these systems.
Redefining who the "client" is, and what the "firm" means, seems crucial in shifting toward more equitable and public-facing labour systems. Ann Lui of Future Firm (Chicago) has proposed the office of the public architect, where architects are something akin to lawyers providing legal counsel to communities. Assemble (London) is organised as a multidisciplinary collective; they have been working with community land trusts and engaging directly in local craft and making processes (such as establishing community-based workshops).
"Redefining who the 'client' is, and what the 'firm' means, seems crucial in shifting toward more equitable and public-facing labour systems."
- Amelyn Ng
Such acts of redefinition may also suggest that firms band together, to form coalitions in a non-competitive manner. In Australia, several small-to-medium sized practices have come together to develop multifamily projects under Nightingale, an ethical development model for more affordable, owner-occupied (rather than speculative), sustainable housing. Second Edition (Sydney) works on revaluing demolition waste within a design/deconstruction and consulting practice, which necessitates a reimagining of clientele, aesthetics, construction knowledge, risk and liability. OFFICE (Melbourne) is a nonprofit practice which has curated lectures on the politics of public space and actually held them on site, to direct conversations beyond institutional walls toward issues at stake in the development of the city. Beyond those mentioned here, it seems that many groups are actively orienting practice against the grain of privatisation or corporatisation; there seems to be an upswell of participation in urgent discussions (like rental reform, public services, unionisation) that have been historically excluded from architectural discourse.
CAN VU BUI & LANE RICK (OFFICE OF THINGS) Broadly speaking, our office is built on the belief that architects should build practices that compensate team members equally, both in terms of monetary compensation as well as public credit for completed projects. Architecture is a fundamentally collaborative field, and the more closely its power and labour structures can reflect that, the better.
In our own office, we work within a fluid organisational structure. We collaborate within our office and with an ever-growing community of architects, artists, builders, activists, and fabricators. These collaborations extend the field of architecture, while strengthening the experiences and expertise that we build from. We tailor the project team and organisational structure to each project, which allows us to meet external demands while making the most of our internal resources. This has allowed our small office to draw from a large pool of knowledge, without burdening any one member. It allows us to respond to the demands of a corporate framework, whilst also pushing back as we see fit. We embrace the collaboration necessary to bring any project to fruition; by acknowledging this complexity, we hope to model a more inclusive design culture.
"Recent pushes towards unionisation among architects are an example of the progress that architects have made toward rethinking the relationship between architecture and labour."
- Can Vu Bui & Lane Rick, Office Of Things
Beyond our own work, it is good to see this happening more frequently today than in the past, but we all still have a long way to go. Recent pushes towards unionisation among architects are an example of the progress that architects have made toward rethinking the relationship between architecture and labour. Publications increasingly find ways to describe nuanced and collaborative relationships, as well as crediting large project teams on completed projects. The increasing proliferation and variation of architectural collaboratives helps to explore and demonstrate novel ways of structuring labour systems and project delivery strategies.
Alessandro Orsini is an architect and co-founding partner of Rome and New York-based research and design practice Architensions. His investigations focus on architecture’s political, social, and environmental spatial networks with specific interests in the commons and the definition of new modes of collective living. His practice and research are intertwined with teaching, expanding collaborative modes of inquiry to respond to new definitions of ecologies and spatial ontologies. Alessandro received his Master of Architecture “summa cum laude” at Roma Tre University in Rome and was a visiting scholar at Columbia University GSAPP. He holds architectural licenses in Italy (OAR) and the United Kingdom (ARB).
New Affiliates is a New York-based studio led by Ivi Diamantopoulou and Jaffer Kolb. Recently completed work ranges from ground up projects to interiors to exhibitions and installations for institutions including the Jewish Museum, Shed, and Park Avenue Armory. Alongside commissioned work, they lead projects and collaborations that focus on matters of reuse particularly as it relates to current standards of practice. New Affiliates have been named "Next Progressives" by Architect Magazine, awarded the Architectural League Prize and the New York New Practices Award by the AIA. Most recently their work was featured at MoMA’s exhibition New York, New Publics.
Architensions (ATE) is an international architectural design studio operating as an agency of research led by Alessandro Orsini and Nick Roseboro and based in New York & Rome. The studio was founded in 2013 to investigate the city and its spatial form to look at architecture, design, and the city with a perspective rooted in site-specificity, enabling the exploration of new ways to connect history and culture. The studio works at the intersection of theory, practice, and academia, focusing on architecture’s political, social, and environmental networks with specific interests in the commons and the definition of new modes of collective living.
Dash Marshall is an architecture and strategic design studio founded in 2009 by Amy Yang, Ritchie Yao, and Bryan Boyer. Today we have offices in Brooklyn and Detroit. Our architectural projects span from homes to workspaces, community spaces such as Detroit Public Theatre to shops including Face Haus salons in three states. Dash Marshall’s design process starts with close attention to human ritual and routine. Recent clients include Detroit Public Theatre, IKEA, Google, Sidewalk Labs, Knight Foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies, The Modern Museum of Art in NYC, Face Haus, Korilla, and numerous private families.
Jerome Haferd / BRANDT : HAFERD is a Harlem-based practice specialising in community-driven projects since 2012. The studio has been recognized nationally and internationally for award-winning designs for cultural resilience, public space, and public memory. The firm was a AIA New York New Practices 2020 recipient. Recent projects include the Sankofa installation in Harlem, and their winning proposal for the International Africatown Competition, “In the Wake”. They were recently commissioned for a permanent public plaza artwork on the revitalised East River Esplanade in New York City. Principal Jerome Haferd is a #Blackvisionaries award recipient and assistant professor at City College's Spitzer School of Architecture.
Bryony Roberts Studio is a design and research practice led by Bryony Roberts, a founding member of Feminist Spatial Practices and WIP Collaborative. Her practice integrates methods from art, architecture, and preservation to create community-based projects in the public realm. The studio has been awarded the Architectural League Prize and New Practices New York from AIA New York as well as support from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Graham Foundation, and the American Academy in Rome, where Roberts was awarded the Rome Prize for 2015-16. Roberts guest-edited the recent volume Log 48: Expanding Modes of Practice and teaches architecture as an Adjunct Associate Professor at Columbia University GSAPP in New York.
A+A+A is a design studio led by Andrea Chiney, Arianna Deane, and Ashely Kuo. Founded in 2018 with the belief that design impacts all people, everywhere (for better or worse) they strive to make the process more inclusive, collaborative, and joyful. Working at all scales, they create thoughtfully-designed objects, experiences, and built spaces that prioritise community. Their process builds a radically inclusive way of working where every project starts and ends with those who are directly affected. Past projects include mobile ‘Healing Spaces’ for communities in Brownsville Brooklyn and a mutual aid, dining pavilion program for small businesses in Chinatown Manhattan.
Future Expansion, office of Architecture and Urbanism, operates out of Brooklyn, NY and is led by partners Deirdre McDermott (AIA) and Nicholas McDermott (RA, LEED-AP). FE was founded on the belief that the future provides us with the opportunity to constantly improve on the past, that previous solutions should not preclude new inventions, and that architecture and urban design are meaningful cultural tools in this endeavor. The firm’s built work has won awards locally and nationally and FE was a 2023 recipient of Architectural Record’s Design Vanguard.
Amelyn Ng is a Singaporean-Australian architect, cartoonist, and Assistant Professor of Architecture at the Rhode Island School of Design. Through research, drawing, and exhibitions, her creative practice explores architecture as media; environmental matter as information. Working across scales and between digital and physical mediums, she seeks counter-narratives and alternative representations to architecture’s status quo, particularly around climate and social questions. Recent exhibitions include D.E.P.O.T. at RISD in Providence, and Planetary Home Improvement at VIPER Gallery in Prague. Her writing can be found in the Journal of Architectural Education, e-flux, Perspecta, and Cultural Politics, among other publications.
Office of Things is an award-winning and collaborative multi-disciplinary design practice that was founded in 2015 by JT Bachman, Can Vu Bui, Vincent Calabro, Lane Rick, and Katie Stranix. With offices in New York City, Chicago, and Charlottesville, the firm focuses on heightening the sensitivity of the human experience at all scales, from meditation spaces to public art, from workforce housing to single family residences. By integrating artful gestures into everyday spaces, we aim to bring a sense of place and community to our projects.
Valerio Franzone is the Managing Editor at KoozArch. He is a Ph.D. Architect (Università IUAV di Venezia), and his work focuses on the relationships between architecture, humanity, and nature. A founding partner of 2A+P and 2A+P Architettura, he later established Valerio Franzone Architect. His projects have been awarded in various international competitions, and shown in several exhibitions as the 7th, 11th, and 14th International Architecture Exhibition - La Biennale di Venezia. His projects and texts appear in international magazines such as Domus, A10, Abitare, Volume, and AD Architectural Design.