Diane E. Davis speaks on the power of design schools to shape local communities

Leaders in architectural education convened last month to discuss their programs' potential to reshape cities. From left to right: Cathleen McGuigan, Architectural Record (moderator), and panelists Robert Shibley (UB School of Architecture and Planning); Diane Davis (Harvard Graduate School of Design); and Deborah Berke (Yale School of Architecture). Photo by Susan Farley/University of Buffalo

The Harvard Graduate School of Design’s Diane E. Davis joined fellow design-school leaders from the University of Buffalo last month to discuss how their various programs both contribute to and benefit from their local communities. Davis spoke alongside Deborah Berke, dean of the Yale University School of Architecture, and Robert Shibley, dean of the University of Buffalo (UB) School of Architecture and Planning, in a March 21 panel moderated by Architectural Record editor Cathleen McGuigan and held at the Ford Foundation in New York City.

The panel followed a screening of “See It Through Buffalo,” a cinematic tribute to that city’s urban landscapes and transitioning neighborhoods, produced by UB’s School of Architecture and Planning and exhibited during the 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale. The film helped frame a discussion of the dynamics of community engagement and how a design school might interact with the urban context in which it’s situated.

Davis has served as chair of the GSD’s Department of Urban Planning and Design since 2015. During the March 21 panel, Davis spoke to the GSD’s metropolitan Boston surroundings, in which, she observed, a relatively compact urban size coupled with complex city-region dynamics mean students must work at smaller scales.

“Boston is a divided city and region, with pockets of poverty and neglect,” she said. “We have to teach our students to think strategically with acupunctural interventions rather than comprehensive interventions.”

Davis also noted GSD programs like the recently announced Community Design and Learning Initiative, as well as fellowships that enable students to exercise their design and planning know-how while serving at-need local communities.

“You become a better architect and designer by knowing one place well,” Davis said. “It’s a special opportunity for students who care about changing the cities they live in to go to an institution that has that partnership.”

Davis’s observations harmonized with those from deans Berke and Shibley. Berke noted a partnership between a Yale School of Architecture housing studio and New Haven housing nonprofit Columbus House, in which intensive community engagement was instrumental to siting and designing a house for the studio to build.

“As important as it was to build the house,” Berke said, “seeing how the machinations of community engagement work with the planning process was probably the more valuable lesson.”