Ana Miljački speaks with Bryan Lee about design justice and challenging the architectural status quo.
Recorded on August 5, 2022. Read a transcript of the episode below.
Bryan Lee is an architect, educator, writer, and design justice advocate. He is the founder and design director of Colloqate, a nonprofit multidisciplinary design practice based in New Orleans, Louisiana. Colloqate works with different types of clients and communities with the goal of expanding community access to design and creating spaces of racial, social, and cultural equity. He has led two award-winning youth design programs nationwide and is the founding co-organizer of the Design as Protest collective. In 2019, Colloqate received The Architectural League’s Emerging Voices award.
In this episode, Ana speaks with Lee about the possibilities and projects that nonprofit status enables, as well as about challenging standard architectural conventions and limitations. Their discussion touches on design justice, the importance of accountability in design decisions, and the act of translating between the language of architecture and the cultural language of communities.
About I Would Prefer Not To
Conceived and produced by MIT’s Critical Broadcasting Lab and presented with The Architectural League, I Would Prefer Not To1Herman Melville, “Bartleby, The Scrivener: A Story of Wall-street,” The Piazza Tales (1856). tackles a usually unexamined subject: the refusal of an architectural commission. Why do architects make the decision to forfeit the possibility of work? At what point is a commission not worth it? When in one’s career is it necessary to make such a decision? Whether concealed out of politeness or deliberately shielded from public scrutiny, architects’ refusals usually go unrecorded by history, making them difficult to analyze or learn from. In this series of recorded interviews, I Would Prefer Not To aims to shed light on the complex matrix of agents, stakeholders, and circumstances implicated in every piece of architecture.
Transcript lightly processed and provided for reference only. May not accurately capture all aspects of the conversation.
Ana Miljački: (00:22)
Hello, and thank you for tuning in. I’m Ana Miljački, Professor of Architecture at MIT and director of the Critical Broadcasting Lab. And on behalf of the Architectural League of New York and the Critical Broadcasting Lab, I welcome you to our architecture podcast series titled, I Would Prefer Not To.
I Would Prefer Not To is an oral history project conducted through audio interviews on the topic of perhaps the most important kind of refusal in architects’ toolboxes, refusal of the architectural commission. By definition, the topic of refusal stays hidden from public scrutiny, and is also hidden from history. Withdrawals of this kind tend not to leave paper trails, and are not easy to examine or learn from. And yet the lessons contained in architects’ deliberations about and decisions not to engage are politically relevant and urgent. Decisions to not engage a commission or types of commissions or commissions with certain characteristics inevitably forfeit potential profit, placing other values above it, at least momentarily.
My guest in this episode is Bryan C. Lee. Thank you for joining me, Bryan.
Bryan Lee is an architect, educator, writer and design justice advocate. He is the founder design director of Colloqate Design, a nonprofit multidisciplinary design practice in New Orleans, Louisiana. Colloqate works with different types of clients and communities to expand community access to design, and in order to create spaces of racial, social and cultural equity. He has led two award winning youth design programs nationwide, and is the founding co-organizer of Design as Protest collective. He was most recently noted as one of the 2018 fastcompany most creative people in business, USC Annenberg MacArthur civic media fellow, and Colloqate received the Architectural League’s Emerging Voices Award in 2019. Now I usually begin these conversations by asking about my interlocutors’ most memorable decision to not engage or to drop a commission. But since Colloqate is a nonprofit organization, and I’ve heard you present it’s making precisely as a challenge to the most common forms of architectural practice, perhaps we can begin with the ways in which refusal at that meta level fuels your practice?
Bryan Lee 02:51
Well, first, I want to say thank you, thank you for having me today. This is a question that’s at the core of who we are as organization. And I think just to go back to the origins, when we started Colloqate, the intention was to have the most radical design practice one could have with the acknowledgement that ultimately, we would be turned down for jobs, we would have an opportunity to challenge organizations and institutions by way of refusal, and we would be able to make all of those things publicly notable, so that we can provide a guidepost for what it might look like. If this organization would not be or we’re not to be successful, then at the very least we can make a make a dent in a particular direction. Refusal is certainly at the DNA level of the inception of this organization. And part of that became really fundamentally about why we chose to be a nonprofit versus a for profit. The boundaries that a nonprofit gives us allows us to refuse things that other practices couldn’t and as a byproduct to receive funding from other sources that most practices can’t. And so that that allowed us to be a little bit more flexible, but also gave us the permission to be able to say no fairly easily on projects that we felt were out of alignment with our core mission and core beliefs.
I might get back to that somewhere a little bit later in our conversation so that we can help others do the same. But maybe I’ll ask now, what are the things we must refuse in order to build a just city?
Bryan Lee 04:58
Yeah, I find this this question and this kind of notion of just city to be infinitely fascinating and in large part because, you know, as we started to develop design justice very early on, so this is a project that I’ve worked on and a part of a movement work that I’ve worked on for 20 years now, and at its core design justice is a way for us to challenge institutions and organizations that use architecture and design as a tool of oppression or as a as a tool of injustice. But on its counter, it’s a way for us to envision new spaces of again, as you said, racial social cultural justice. And, as I mentioned, design justice asks us to challenge the privilege and power structures that use architecture and design as a tool of oppression. And so it means that we have to identify the characteristics of unjust circumstances within cityscapes and then that’s up and down the continuum of power, meaning, we have to understand that through the lens of pedagogy, policies, procedures, practice, projects, people, so all of these things we can affect as a design community. But when we think about how we challenge, or how we activate that challenge, or manifest that challenge, it means that we actually have to think about the way that RFPs come into the world. That means that we have to think about who has decision making power within the context of any given architecture. It means that the outputs, the accountability, right, who are we held accountable to? So for me, I hear the word refusal and I think about abolition, I think about the frameworks of abolition, which talk about not just the deconstruction, but the construction of new worlds. So for me, every time I think about when we refuse something, it is so that we can visually manifest what a new world could be, right. And so, a large part of our work is really understanding the internal mechanisms of institutions that bring a project to be in the world, and then fully understanding those well enough to either, again, challenge them in stride while we’re working on a project to completely turn down the project upfront, or I think, lastly, to assist an organization in moving forward even if we do not do that project, right- so how do you actually support an organization, even if that organization is not prepared for you in this moment? And so all of those are still active ways for us to support.
Maybe this is a good moment to ask you what types of entities you collaborate with, and how you would describe the outcomes of the work in concrete terms?
Bryan Lee 08:09
Yeah, absolutely. A large part of our work is with local government, and that might mean public school boards or public libraries. It also is community colleges. And then the other side of that is we work with a lot of nonprofits, we work with a lot of other organizations that have shared mission alignment. And so, for us, we are actively seeking to work with folks who engage with marginalized communities, engaged with disinherited neighborhoods, and those organizations often need support visualizing their theory of change, oftentimes, and so we work with a lot of those organizations. So that might mean in terms of practical outputs, it might mean that we’re working on vision plans, often for nonprofits. A lot of the early work, upfront work, is visualizing or vision planning, so that they can either raise money or make a policy change at a city level as a basis from the vision work that we do with them, all the way to you know, 30,000 square foot library project that is currently under construction, or at least finishing up CDs. So the projects can range from, again, vision to full scale architectural work to planning work at a at a larger scale. So one of the other ones that I guess I would mention is a project like Paper Monuments, which is a city wide, comprehensive planning process that engaged thousands and thousands of residents across the city of New Orleans- was intended and still to this day acts as a repository for community voice. And that plan may not manifest directly in a series of specific monuments, but it guides so much of what monumentality is moving towards in the city, as we see it,
I like this answer, so let me see if I can bring out architecture a little bit more. When you describe your thinking about the built world, I’ve heard you say an important sentence that I want to repeat here for us that says, For nearly every injustice, there is an architecture built that sustains and perpetuates it. And I’m wondering how this form of, this way of thinking about the built world affects your understanding of architectures efficacy, and embeddedness, and also possibility for doing it otherwise.
Bryan Lee 10:59
That statement is not a statement that I started with. It’s a statement that came about after many years of thinking about how architecture… and I think as we’re taught oftentimes that architecture has an affirmative impact on the world, which I mean, I think it does, but it has to turn through a lot of mess in order to get there. And oftentimes, in particular, communities, it never gets there. And I think that’s the problem, right? And so for the communities that I serve the communities that I work in, oftentimes, the architecture of the built environment never really fulfills its promise of what a new neighborhood, a new community, a new world might look like, with the existing inhabitants as its primary focus, it doesn’t happen. And so I think it changes my perspective on the typologies of architecture; the bandwidth and scale of architecture were so narrow, in terms of what we define as a useful architecture. But one of our core tenants, what we talk about in our practice is that form follows fiction in communities that are communities of culture. What I mean by that is, because we have been deprived of assets and resources, often to grow and maintain land and to grow communities as a byproduct of that land, as the derivatives of that land, it means that our stories are held in these ephemeral buildings and these ephemeral spaces. But those are just as valuable, right. I think that is where we can start to find what justice might look like, because we often ignore those things. When I talk about there’s a, for nearly every injustice, it first means that we have to identify what justice is and understand what injustice is, and then as a byproduct of that understanding, really start to unpack what are the kind of cultural mechanisms that allow people to survive within a built environment when they lack or have been deprived of the resources to truly reach the just world that they want to see.
Maybe it would be useful to, given some of these definitions already on the table, to hear how you would describe or characterize or how you conceptualize the medium, or the media in which you work. In a way, it seems to me, so this, I might be putting words in your mouth, but it seems to me that architecture, you’re expanding a definition of architecture, or you’re putting architecture on the spectrum of possible ways of operating in the world, and it’s one among many perhaps, so I’m asking you to see how you, how you would, say, what is the medium in which you produce, that you shape, let’s say, in order to produce effects in the world?
Bryan Lee 14:16
That’s a fascinating question. I don’t often think about it this way but I perceive that our process is one in which we view architecture through its processes. Part of the definition within design justice is that we’re talking about envisioning spaces for reparation, that impact both the process and outcomes of design. And so, understanding that there are processes of architecture that can be expanded and embraced by so many more folks, rather than just simply noting that there’s a beautiful building at the end of it. I think, from a process standpoint, going through the steps and the procedures and the unpacking of particular issues and neighborhoods and communities, the way that we are taught to is hyper productive, because it allows people to view their world in ways that they haven’t had the opportunity to previously. if we’re able to combine that knowledge with their pre-existing knowledge, it provides more opportunities for them to see, again, the ways that their neighborhoods and communities and our neighborhoods and communities can be profoundly reshaped in service of the existing communities. So yeah, I don’t know that I ever feel like the physicality of architecture has to be the only way that we work. But we started to create, we created a diagram early in our work that talked about going from memory to marker, marker to monument, monument to memorial, memorial to museum and thinking about that as a way to understand the continuum of memory, or spatial memory, rather than only understanding the physicality of architecture at the end of that where the museum lies, right? Where we hold all of those articulated memories and physics in physical form. I think that’s huge for me, because, again, dealing in communities that have been misled, by development, been misled by particular governments, it means that design has to move at the speed of trust, it has to move slowly, it has to acknowledge one’s memories, it has to… and so our medium has to be one that that does that. It has to mark and support those memories in some capacity and hold land and hold, like, physical space. So the medium of kind of marking the space, whether that’s through murals, or whether that’s through posters or monuments, those are all ways to mark the land, but those are all remediation to convoluted soil, social soil, in particular communities. I think all of that’s necessary and that’s how we view the work that we do.
I find that sort of exciting to try to think of ways of insisting on something like Paper Monuments, or your Story Up program as architecture. I’m not sure if this is a kind of a, I don’t know, an old fashioned desire to talk about medium that we shape, but maybe. it’s to try to figure out what in that, when working with the spectrum from pedagogy policy practice to people, how would you describe the expertise necessary for the production of effects that you are interested in? And so I am bringing it back to an interest in what this means for pedagogy in this sense.
Bryan Lee 18:23
What I find is that, in our work, the type of work we’re talking about, one has to be hyper focused on what it means to be within a beloved community, it means that we have to acknowledge and understand, like, the expertise has to be around what is a power system? How does power work more broadly, not just in its racial dynamics, and its gender dynamics, and its ablest dynamics, like what are all of the various ways that power manifests itself? It means that we actually have to understand how values get directly infused into the landscape, and whose values are dominant, because those are the ones obviously, that are going to, allow their, I guess, infuse their values into that landscape. The skill set that I found most useful is a sincerity that can work in communities that can build relationships and that can translate between the language of architecture and the cultural language of communities. There’s a fine line there, and people believe that they understand what culture means but a cultural competency, especially again, working in the 99% of communities that don’t have access to resources at the level that’s needed for, quote unquote architecture, as we understand it, is huge. Just to add one additional layer on to that, when I speak of culture, we have a direct definition that helps us proceed. And that definition is: culture is the consequence of persistent circumstance and immediate condition. It’s a collective coping mechanism to some extent. What I, the story that I often tie with that definition is that if you come to New Orleans, you understand that there are a second lines in the city. You go out and you have a good time you dance in the street with us, you sing, you drink, you eat, do all those good things. But you don’t recognize that we couldn’t bury our dead in the city. At a certain point. We couldn’t get the money necessary to bury those dead 100 years later. So all of these rituals are a way to cope with a system that is actively trying to harm. Now it may seem joyous, it may be joyous, but its manifestation is a byproduct of survival of resilience in the face of a system that is attempting to destroy you.
Do you ever advise your clients or architects you work with not to do something? All the time? Yeah, I think that’s about it.
Bryan Lee 21:56
All the time, yeah!
Tell us about it.
Bryan Lee 21:59
I think, again, another core part of our work, including the work of everybody on staff is to continue to challenge both our clients and partners at every step along the way. There’s an inevitable moment, especially in institutional projects, where the encroachment of CPTED (Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design) comes into to a project. So we have to give a presentation on hostile architecture and walk through the inception of this particular concept, whether it’s going through broken glass theory or the like, there’s a ton of things that we can go down and have conversations about, but our advocacy is one in which we ask every project to avoid the base theories of CPTED and hostile architecture as a means to bring about some community focus in their architecture. It’s not going to happen, right, it’s going to do the exact opposite. So that’s one big one that we often face. The other one is, levels around accountability and communication to communities. Especially when you’re in conversation with communities, often clients only want to speak of the things that are confirmed, affirmative, or that put them in a good light, right. We often have to push back and make sure that within our documentation, within our outward communication that we are both talking about what we are able to do, but more specifically, what we aren’t able to do in this particular work and why we aren’t able to do it, especially given that we spent time talking to communities. You know, everybody who does any community design work knows that you will be very quick to hear from community members that y’all have been listening to our ideas for years and years and years and you haven’t inputted it, you haven’t done anything with it, and that is often true, because folks don’t communicate why things don’t happen. Right. So part of, I would say that lastly on that particular note, we don’t just talk about this stuff, the idea is to institutionalize it in a way that anchors it for the next designer, the next team, the next project these institutions do and so when we talk about that accountability structure, we do a design justice set in every document that we do. It lists most of the comments if not all of the comments from every community member that we talked to over the course of the early part of our scope. And as we get into CDs, you start to see what decisions were made and what decisions weren’t made and we tie them, again, back to community voice rather than indiscriminate conversations or indiscriminate decisions made by those of us who hold power within the process of designing a building.
Could you describe what’s in that set for a particular project for us?
Bryan Lee 25:41
Yeah, certainly. It is essentially a plan document elevation section, just as you would see in any architectural set. We annotate it like you would keynote a project. We have a list of commentary, or comments and themes that are defined by the thousands and thousands of comments that we’ve had with community members over a course of time, and we pinpoint any of the critical decision making moments that community has identified, overlap that with the critical moments that the client has defined, and we list how that decision came to a head. Right? Again, whether it’s in the affirmative or the negative, but it’s a clear documentation internally, both for the client, but for permitting offices, for building departments, like, they understand why things happen, your as-builts will have this so in 20 years, when somebody comes back and attempts to remove something that the community did, they’ll see: don’t touch this, right, because certain communities put time, effort, care into to putting this. It has a long lasting effect but it also attempts to hold an immediate level of accountability to people in the moment.
For example, in the high school project for Brooklyn that you’re working on, this would be like a playground plan with meeting notes of sorts?
Bryan Lee 27:30
No, actually, so there’s a back end with like 100, 150 different meetings that we have, right, and those meetings may be 2 people, they may be 50 people, but we document and write a ton of notes. In each of those meetings, we try to identify and code so that people are not identified long term, so we can’t specifically call out individuals. Through all of those notes, what will happen is that over 5000, 10,000 comments we will start to identify a series of 12, 15, 30 themes that run throughout the project. It might be around gender-inclusive restrooms, it might be around ability justice, when we talk about the previous standard of a six-foot turning radius versus a contemporary standard that’s a little larger, right? Those things are critical to bubble up during the conversation of a project, and we don’t want to be the only people saying it, so we want to make sure that when decisions have to be made, there is enough influenced by community members visually displayed so that our clients can make the best decision.
Maybe we can zoom out a little bit to, again, bigger questions in the practice. What would you say are the conditions in which you’re able to do your best work?
Bryan Lee 29:11
Yeah, when I don’t have a client! I think our best work comes because we’re nonprofit. We are able to often support organizations that just don’t have access and don’t connect with what the world of architecture wants to provide. Right. Whether it’s Paper Monuments, or the Louis Armstrong Park Cultural Convention Center, which is a new, or, which is a project that came away, or it’s a vision that came by way of organizers and coalition builders on the ground challenging the mayor of our city who was attempting to put, to move City Hall to one of the most sacred grounds in our city, right? You don’t get to do those projects if your only drive is through standard practice. Working with 26 organizations that are on the ground, that feel the impact of design decisions yet to be made, and already made, is critical, it changes their lives. And I don’t mean that as a means to elevate the potential impact of architecture. I mean, literally, that building would move more people out of this neighborhood, and it’s on its last leg, right? So this is not a feel good moment. This is to say, this is a fight. So we get to work with folks who are in a fight and that we are in a fight with, right, like we’re actually in the struggle.
Now because we got to the, again, the question of the way in which your nonprofit status defines the circumstances of the operation itself or prescribes them in a particular way, maybe we can go back to that thing you opened with, which is something about, maybe how you arrive at that, like, what does it take to become a nonprofit and to be able to operate the way you are operating?
Bryan Lee 31:35
Yeah, I mean, it’s, it’s a, I know, it’s a niche path to take. Part of it is a willingness and a participation in a social world that is activated by nonprofits, which is like philanthropy, and fundraising and all of that stuff. That’s kind of a pain. But it does open up opportunities for yourself and your staff to be able to do things that otherwise would not be able to be done. The pathway to getting it done mostly is, it’s a 1023EZ with the IRS, and you register with your state, the licensure considerations vary state to state. I’m not going to go through all the states, but there are a significant amount of states that will allow you to practice as a nonprofit. There are technicalities around that, and you just have to be specific in each state so I would call any of the licensure boards and just have that conversation. That’s the kind of back end stuff. But I think the more like technical or I guess practical considerations of it really have to be around, you’re both making fee for service and philanthropic dollars. It means that your fee for service work has to be able to serve and support the philanthropic work you do, and vice versa. The things that you’re doing, from the nonprofit side of things, have to be able to elevate the things that you’re doing on the fee for service side of things. That’s just mostly a way to maintain a practical revenue flow that will allow you to survive. That might mean if you do workshops, or if you are, you know, doing trainings or research or writing things like guidebooks that tell people how to do certain things in the world. Those are all helpful tools to move you forward. And then I think the other thing that has been fascinating for me is growing a practice. We are now at 12 people across two states, we have nine people in New Orleans and four in Portland, presently. The ability from a nonprofit perspective to truly reconsider not just changing practice from an external purpose, but how we change practice internally, right, like how do we restructure in a less hierarchical manner? How do we understand and anchor our work through the lens of labor rights and worker rights. So as a nonprofit, we open our books, everybody knows what everybody makes. Everybody knows where every dollar goes, if you want to sit on the financial meeting you come to that. It allows us to kind of be a little bit more open book but in large part because we have to be open book anyway, right? A nonprofit has to share most of its financial information. But it gave us those tools to be able to be even more open as a byproduct of it. So, there’s a lot of ways to do this, but I would say, you know, find a development person, find a good lawyer, and find folks who have a clear sense of mission. Because there are a lot of good designers out there in the world. But if you’re missing that, the soul of what it takes to be in this particular type of practice, it can go downhill fairly quickly.
I have two questions out of this one that follow in totally different directions, perhaps. So maybe let’s talk first about, you spell out your principles on the website and elsewhere of Colloqate, but what are the ways that you discuss produce and maybe stick to these principles at Colloqate? What is the nature of a kind of conversation? You just started talking about the way in which the practice is transparent internally, so maybe a little more on the mission?
Bryan Lee 36:16
The way that often manifests is that we have to actively carve out time to be in conversation that’s not simply about projects. Viewing the organization as a project unto itself, crafting a new model for how we operate is huge, and so we take time. On every other Friday, we’ll do four hours a day where we sit and do an organizational assessment, right, like we pick a topic, and we have deep conversations about it, and we, you know, really go through, or, I would say the most recent one is we, our whole staff rewrote our entire employee handbook.
Great. So I have one last question. Now that the practice exists in two locations, maybe this is an interesting question, but I wanted to ask you if you thought your methods were transferable to different situations, and here, I mean, concretely- what role does the particular situation place, location have in your work? And in thinking about what kind of engagement and agency you want to have? I mean, I’m going back to the name of the practice, obviously.
Bryan Lee 37:40
To that point, right, Colloqate is directly colloquial and location, it is fundamentally about the sophisticatedly informal use of formal language, and that language in a place, in a particular location. So, by its very nature inherently has to be of a particular place. Which means that, for us, the work has to be centered and anchored by people who live, are from, have value in the communities of a particular place. That’s one. But I think the other thing that always is a challenge for me is, because I am a black man in this country, that the defining characteristic of blackness is one in which oppressors have removed black people from land, right, have moved and displaced black people from particular lands. So there’s a placeless-ness that exists as a part of being in a black community. There’s also a placeness that is a part of being in a black community that is, again, as I said earlier, Form follows fiction, that those stories, those narratives, the commonality and culture, becomes home, right? So, and I’ll tie that all together in in saying that, I try to find those commonalities with the recognition that I am not from any particular place, or any of those particular places outside of New Orleans. It still requires us to follow the first principle of design justice, which is honor the Grieux, right? So, it still requires, even if I feel like there’s a placeness that can come of my blackness, in particular communities, honor the Grieux states that I have to honor the PhDs of the block, the Miss Marys, The Miss Anns, and those people who know everything about a place and can express that value and care in their existing knowledge.
That’s beautiful. Is there anything else you want to add?
Bryan Lee 40:15
This is fun. I don’t have anything specifically I want to add but I cannot have a solid conversation all the time. This is great.
So Brian, thank you for talking to me today. And listeners, thank you for listening to this episode of I Would Prefer Not To
The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.