Architecture, Design, Action: Alex Krieger on Dismantling Systemic Racism in Pedagogy and Practice

Illustration of Alex Krieger, Professor in Practice of Urban Design & Interim Chair of the Department of Urban Planning and Design, with text

Alex Krieger, Professor in Practice of Urban Design & Interim Chair of the Department of Urban Planning and Design

What immediate steps can architects, planners, and urban designers take to advocate for more just cities?

Here is a very hard step: All practitioners of the design and planning disciplines need to be able to discuss matters of equity and justice more intelligently with clients. We need to find better ways to advocate for these issues, especially with private and corporate clients, for whom such concerns may not be in the foreground as they endeavour to undertake, finance, and deliver a particular project. These are difficult but important conversations, and are key to inculcating such awareness into a project. 

The American Institute of Architects, American Planning Association, and American Society of Landscape Architects must also figure out ways to promote these issues to make clients more alert. Under the typical pressures of getting a project done, enhancing the quality of life for the most vulnerable communities will not always be the highest priority. For younger designers—or those not yet in a position of confidence to say no to projects that directly and negatively impact the lives of underserved communities—it’s a Solomonesque dilemma. When do you clench your teeth and go on, and when do you leave the project? 

There are certain practices committed to only taking on work from socially minded non-profits, but this cannot be true for all of us, or most of us would be out of work. Urban designers face a particularly difficult hurdle. In theory, they’re interested in a context broader than the assignment presented. For any project, they would want to research and come to understand another square mile around it. But most clients would say, “Hey, I don’t need you to do that, and I’m not paying for it.” Getting clients to become more responsive to undertaking a project through a wider geographic and social lens is tricky but necessary. 

How rapid will the pace of change be? For many it may remain too slow. Practitioners across disciplines must think more critically about whom their buildings and urban developments are built for and whom they affect. Do you really need another 50,000 square feet of premium office space downtown, or high-end condos? This is a conversation that’s already happening, and one positive thing about the current crisis is that no one can remain oblivious to social and racial injustices. Awareness requires response—not only contemplation—in order to forge a more just future. 

As chair of Urban Planning and Design, can you tell me what kinds of conversations are happening in your department?

We did draft several statements, but some on our faculty said, “OK, this acknowledges past wrongs, but beyond “apologizing,” where are the steps being proposed, where are the actions?” One faculty member reminded us that actions speak louder than words. That’s why a statement from our department has not come out yet. Under the leadership of incoming chair Rahul Mehrotra, our department is taking the summer to develop a statement of actionable items. We are also proud of the activism of our MUP students: After more than a year of discussions and research, they have drafted a lengthy and powerful statement which Dean Whiting has just released to the broader GSD community as an exemplar.   

In your opinion, what additional pedagogical and structural changes ought to happen at the GSD? 

I spent my first two decades at the GSD in the Architecture Department, and I can tell you that the differences between the Architecture and UPD departments run parallel with the nature of the disciplines. Planning inherently involves direct contact with many stakeholders at any one time. As an architect, you’re mostly (not always, of course) dealing with and responding to specific clients. Planners are immersed in a community almost instantly, and most communities involve a range of people and opinions. At the risk of generalizing, I’d say that folks who are inclined to pursue a planning career are generally more socially inclined, and thus open to embracing social matters. 

Our students have been the driving force on topics of social and racial justice for the last decade. The student-led Harvard University Planning Organization (HUPO) has repeatedly challenged faculty and staff on these issues. And by no means should they work for free; it’s not their job to educate their educators pro bono. For example, I provided funds to a group of students at HUPO to undertake research on courses dealing with professional ethics (which became part of their position statement). I firmly believe that we should undertake and support more of that kind of research.

The prizes the GSD confers are mostly a result of philanthropy—donors get to decide the subject matter. It’s often a housing prize, a thesis performance prize, or a travel itinerary to study urbanization, which is all well and good. But there is a new intention to gain support for one or more prizes related to spatial justice. The GSD must seek new funds or refocus existing funds and redirect them to endeavours that directly engage spatial justice, racism, inequalities, and so forth. Likewise, a fellowship or scholarship to motivate students to explore such issues during the course of their studies would be a good idea. It would be especially valuable in the second half of their studies—once they understand what they need to learn, but before they bury themselves in a specific area of research. 

I am skeptical of the idea of a GSD-wide core class on racial justice, for two reasons. The first falls in line with my response to other proposals for school-wide courses about climate change and environmental justice. We must be careful not to unduly dismantle our core curricula required to train able professionals. Secondly, I believe we need to inculcate matters of social justice and diversity throughout the curriculum, not just in an assigned course or two. I’m not suggesting that the Urban Planning and Design Department is a paragon of virtue here, but such issues do tend to be part of our overall curriculum. Our core studio assignments, for example, often deal with underrepresented neighborhoods, so from early on in their studies, students confront places, people, contexts, and institutions that may be outside their own experience. 

Nonetheless, as racial indifference has tended to be the case across the history of the GSD, and since there have been few African American students, and fewer Black faculty, we remain only at the cusp of transformation. Thus a pilot course may be a good idea, but it would have to be structured in a very careful way. 

You will soon become a professor emeritus. Reflecting back on your time at the GSD, and looking toward the future, how do you hope architecture and design education and culture will continue to change? 

Even a decade ago, there was no real pressure to do much about the issues addressed in the Notes on Credibility, or most of the ideas that we’ve talked about today. At that time, faculty tended to mentor or advance younger colleagues with interests and projects similar to their own. That’s human nature at work. But there was a need to expand curiosity. Now the agendas of younger faculty—and students—have acquired more weight in the daily life of the school. This is now happening—I’m sure of it. In the years ahead, I know that much deeper engagement with matters of racial justice and spatial inequality will occur across the school.

In previous years, the lack of diversity in our student body and our faculty kept us kind of oblivious. It’s no excuse. And even recently, before the Notes on Credibility document, and the national call for racial justice, there was a sense that we were doing better: there are more Black students; there’s a course on Black designers. Small steps forward may have made us feel OK and relax. But the challenge now is to cultivate awareness that pervades the curriculum overall. That’s an important distinction. I believe we are on our way to implementing that change. And there must be a shift in perspective that extends from pedagogy to practice. Only changing a course or two, or seeking more Black students, is insufficient to change the present culture of the design disciplines outside of academia. Change must be holistic if it is to be worthwhile.

Alex Krieger, FAIA, is professor in practice of Urban Design at the GSD, where he has taught since 1977.  He served as chair of the Department of Urban Planning and Design (1998–2004, 2006–2007, 2019–2020), director of the Urban Design Program (1990–2001), and associate chair of the Department of Architecture (1984–1989). He has combined a career of teaching and practice, dedicating himself to understanding how to improve the quality of place and life in our major urban areas. Mr. Krieger is also a principal at the global design practice NBBJ.