Youth-ing The Design Process

Embracing — even inviting — the unexpected [BR&L HQ, Oakland CA. RossDrulisCusenbery Architecture, Inc.]

The Client Meeting

An architect walks into a meeting. A kick-off for a new design project. Though he’s never met this steering committee before, he knows of their skills with language and music. He opens the meeting seeking a mission statement from them, something that will guide and inspire the upcoming design process. With a tower of brown paper on the wall and a fistful of markers, he draws out their ideas with a word association exercise. The next step would be narrowing the pool of words into a formal statement, but this will not go as planned. A sudden surprise realigns the room. When he suggests “voting” on the words, blank stares quickly kill this idea. Someone shouts out, “hey, let’s freestyle it,” breaking the awkward silence. Freestyle — improvised rap, rhythmic spoken word — might not make it onto many meeting agendas, but here it is. One committee member quickly triggers a beat box dormant in the corner, the room launches into a pulsing cipher, and the freestyle collaboration begins. Even the architect — who has never rapped in his life — is compelled by the rules of the cipher to join in. With each improvised passage, with each movingly personal lyric about loss, hope, and ambition, an unprecedented vision emerges. A mission statement in double time.

This moment captures a design process driven by young people. This particular steering committee averaged under 20 years old, and the design project was for the headquarters of a non-profit social service organization out of Oakland, California — Beats Rhymes & Life (BR&L) — that offers hip-hop therapy for youth. The freestyle choice made sense. But this was only the first of many surprises that emerged from this group. And similar dynamic surprises have emerged designing with youth in different cities, with different backgrounds, for very different types of projects. Call it participatory design, youth engagement, whatever you want, the point is simple: youth will lead a room in a direction an architect likely will not. Designing with young people on their turf, leveraging their strengths, and inviting the unexpected, can open the creative process to a world of productive surprises.

These surprises are priceless. Imagine the gift of having your preconceptions upended. Picture pouring a rich brew of raw emotion and unfiltered life experience into your design recipe. Now see this fueling your creative engine. You want these allies.

Creating a context where every idea counts [Ashland Youth Center, Alameda County CA. RossDrulisCusenbery Architecture, Inc.]

There is no simple recipe for this level of creative partnership, but there are some steps you can take to foster it. Most importantly, you must un-tether your design process. First to go must be any top-down working relationship: you the architect must relinquish authority, making room for the expertise of everyone in the room. (Yes, young people have expertise). This will lead to momentary unease as everyone leaves their comfort zones. You forgo status, and the youth have to step up. With this new, level playing field, what emerges is a shared environment of collaboration, a third space of interaction where hierarchy is replaced with creative equity, a zone where all ideas count.

The second thing you can do is shift the design process to a new center of gravity: the strengths of the youth. If participants are good with words and music — like the BR&L group — foster a design process based on these strengths. If a group is strong in storytelling, humor, or anecdotes, allow time for listening, document the stories. If the group excels in dance, in visual arts, or they simply draw on a wellspring of lived experience, all these strengths can make for productive collaborators. Do not mold the young people into your own image; don’t try to create a bunch of junior architects by handing out tracing paper and architect’s scales. Compelling them to do what you do will likely highlight deficits in their background. Instead, a youth-centered, strength-based approach lets them do what they do well and channels that to the benefit of the project.

Your third step is to show a willingness to embrace — even invite — the unexpected. You can have a preliminary engagement plan, but be prepared to throw it out at the first sign of a productive detour. Certainly, rap was not on the architect’s agenda for his new client meeting, but it was the best thing to happen for that project. Improvisation loosens the reigns of control and over-determination that can stifle a design process and, more importantly, that can calcify it as an exclusive rather than inclusive activity.

May all your client meetings go freestyle.

In Practice

Professionally, I have led youth engagement efforts many times; it is a process I believe in. The designs that emerge from this process consistently defy expectations. For targeted projects like youth centers, the process often leads away from solutions that adults frequently project onto designs for young people: no primary colors (“that’s for little kids”), no residential/house references (home life is frequently the last thing they want to emulate), no “skate park” requests. These projects often feature unanticipated commitments to environmental health and respect for tradition (so much for rebellious teens). For public art or other urban-scaled projects, the outcomes have been equally enlightening. Art is valued as a living language; the experience of the contemporary city is embraced.

Is this type of socially-responsive architecture mutually exclusive with good design? If you define design as the level of unimpeded control you have over the final content, then shared authorship will surely diminish this control, and what you call “design” will go with it. If, instead, you define design as the articulate synthesis of increasingly complex factors — the diamond emerging from dynamic chaos — then design will only get better.

Surprising outcomes are part of the goal. [Union City Teen Center, Union City CA. RossDrulisCusenbery Architecture, Inc.]

My experience is consistently the latter. In a youth center in a public park in Union City, California, that we co-designed with young people, the teenagers prioritized the legacy of the public open space their parents had grown up with and steered the design toward a stealth building under a carpet of vegetated green roof. In an East Bay neighborhood troubled by gang activity, the young people prioritized inclusiveness, favoring a glassy and porous building to create a common ground where differences between factions would neutralize. In spaces intended for behavioral therapy, the kids wanted to be visible — contrary to stigmas usually associated with mental health — and wanted space to proudly display their process. And fearful for their future environmentally, youth have reached for progressive sustainable design strategies (though they don’t use the phrase, “sustainable design”).

Since youth are traditionally designed “for,” and not “with,” they are stuck with what the adults think they want. This process changes that. Time commitments for the design process have ranged from a one-day intensive to six-months of bi-weekly meetings. When possible, we prefer tracking the design team’s process with the youth engagement process in real time: as we are programming, so are they; when we are brainstorming, so are the young people; when we’re exploring form, color, materials, contextual and sustainable design responses, we work in step with the youth. This way, youth design contributions are generative, not just reactive; they are woven into the process, and essential to the outcome.

As the profession of architecture moves to embrace socially conscious architecture, the participatory design model offers an opportunity for productive equity. A trending idea is that architecture can be a catalyst for social change. It is a problematic idea. A socially conscious architecture won’t impose itself on a social issue, but instead will make room for the input and contributions of the social that it is meant to serve. This architecture will remove hurdles to a crucial self-determination for clients and users. In the collaborative model, we replace the deterministic idea of architecture as a catalyst for social change with the inclusive idea of the social as a catalyst for architectural change.

Mallory Scott Cusenbery is design principal at RossDrulisCusenbery Architecture, Inc., an award-winning Bay Area firm specializing in community, youth, justice and public safety projects; Mr. Cusenbery is also a writer and exhibitor on topics of architecture and urban design. He appreciates that his first foray into rap was not caught on video.