Architecture, Design, Action: Toshiko Mori on Dismantling Systemic Racism in Pedagogy and Practice

Illustration of Toshiko Mori, Robert P. Hubbard Professor in the Practice of Architecture, with text

Toshiko Mori, Robert P. Hubbard Professor in the Practice of Architecture

What are your thoughts on the Notes on Credibility document? 

It’s a strong statement as much as it is a thoughtful one. The demands are very well-reasoned. We must make headway on them, and I expect that some changes can be immediate. The students’ anger is absolutely justified and it breaks my heart. This injustice and inequity—not only at the GSD, but in society at large—has finally reached a revolutionary tipping point. We must seize this moment to jump in and make a change. We owe it to ourselves, to our students, and to the future of this institution.

Whose job is it to ensure that the demands in the NOC are turned into actions?    

This is fundamentally the school’s responsibility. The students are presenting the issues, but the burden of the work shouldn’t be on them—it should be on the dean, the administration, and the faculty.

Of course, this must go beyond a curriculum change. Our task is to rethink our cities and our civilization, and the time for this is right now. The historical injustice and maltreatment toward Black Americans has continued without meaningful rectification for far too long.

The GSD’s entire institutional history rests on a dogmatic, elitist, and white supremacist version of architecture. It’s a tradition that many architectural institutions have forcibly imposed upon other civilizations to “improve” their culture. In order to change anything, the GSD must first acknowledge its place in this history of systemic oppression and come to terms with its part in perpetuating the colonial legacy.

This is truly a revolutionary moment. A broadening societal understanding of climate change, civil rights, criminal justice reform, societal inequity, cultural diversity, and architectural pedagogy has been enabled by a digital culture that accelerates the transmission of information. It’s all coming together to effect a huge shift in architecture and design understanding; it’s a new era, as radical as the arrival of modernism. This is the time to overhaul architecture and design education for good.

Beyond curriculum revisions, what does this change look like to you? 

We need to amplify voices that have been systemically marginalized and oppressed. We have inherited a mindset and a way of thinking about society and culture through an implicitly racist lens, and we’ve accepted that for far too long. Of course, being a person of color, I am very sensitive to it. I’ve experienced it and perceived it. That being said, my experience as a Japanese person is fundamentally different than that of Black Americans. Non-BIPOC must make space for these voices in order to deepen our understanding of systemic racism while using the power at our disposal to fight for a more just future for Black Americans.

What role must senior faculty play in helping to bring about the longer term changes necessary at the GSD?  

There’s an immense privilege and security in tenure. That privilege should be used to protect those who speak up and risk their reputations to fight for justice. But we must speak up as well. Tenured faculty have the power and responsibility to take the risks—we must be the driving force. This is the time we have to show up and do the work.

Thinking about both immediate and long-term changes, where should the GSD begin?   

First, the GSD has to acknowledge its past mistakes. The dean’s note sincerely does that, and it needs to be followed up with a big move. We must divest from the school’s questionable assets—such as luxury pied-à-terres—that promote white privilege and luxury, and use the proceeds to invest in the diversity of the faculty and student body. Big gestures are needed to make clear that the GSD is committed to fighting racism.

I think there are also actions the GSD can take right away. These actions can bolster the GSD’s relationship with the local community, particularly Boston’s Black community. The Design Discovery programs should be regarded as the baseline for student outreach. There need to be more scholarships to help increase diversity in our community. From there, we can offer students positions and engage them with admissions people. And we can provide training during the summer. We already have this platform—let’s put it to good use. There also needs to be an active and earnest dedication to hiring more Black faculty. Scott Cohen and I recently proposed to the full faculty the establishment of a fellowship program for young professionals and scholars to promote social and spatial justice at the GSD.

We must work in a dynamic way on all these levels at once—rethinking curriculum, hiring, and outreach. Only after that will we gain credibility to be a platform to help the profession at large. We can’t just sit on our Harvard laurels—it’s not going to work like that.

Truth-telling must come before reconciliation. But it’s not enough to solely educate oneself about the history of slavery and oppression in this country. We must realize that these aren’t just issues of the past—they affect Black Americans every day. From there, the GSD must recognize its position in this history and make reparations.

What changes must be made in the architecture discipline and culture? 

Every aspect of the profession must change. There is a limit to how much one can understand about the racial inequities of the profession when looking at it solely through academia. We must also try to understand how structural inequity toward Black Americans plays out in office settings, from the perspective of the working professional. Only through such a multifocal approach can we begin to change the discipline. As human beings, we have to transform and change and keep learning, not only in the academy and in our offices, but also in our hearts and minds. It will be a collaborative learning process; it will be messy, it will be uncomfortable for many of us, but we have no choice.

Toshiko Mori, FAIA, is the founding principal of Toshiko Mori Architect PLLC. She is also the Robert P. Hubbard Professor in the Practice of Architecture at the Graduate School of Design, and served as chair of the Department of Architecture from 2002 to 2008. She was inducted into the Academy of Arts and Letters in 2020 and has been a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences since 2016.