Editors’ note: Marisa Novara, who serves as the Commissioner of Housing for the City of Chicago, spoke with architect and educator Craig Wilkins whose groundbreaking work on hip-hop architecture remains required reading for a generation of social theorists and practitioners. For Newcity, Novara and Wilkins touch on responsibilities of designers and clients, sources of funding, and the ethics of professional licensure. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Marisa Novara: Craig, I’ve been digging into your work and I’d like to read everything you’ve written. And unfortunately I haven’t read everything, but I have a lot of questions with some long lead-ins, because I found so much of what you said just triggered so many thoughts for me. In one article you said, “I always come back to this quote from James Baldwin, ‘I can’t believe what you say, because I see what you do.’ So if you tell me, you know, I really do take equity into consideration and you’re still designing prisons, I don’t believe you.”
I get that part of what you’re saying is that you can contribute to the problem by the very nature of the jobs that you take on as an architect, whether it’s a prison or an overly dense, segregated public housing building, like we have had in abundance in Chicago. But if you took a more neutral example such as, to stick to my world, potential for an appropriately scaled, affordable multifamily housing development—it could be done well or it could be done poorly. I’m curious for your take on the architecture fundamentals that should guide someone in taking on that project with a justice lens.
Craig Wilkins: Well, can we talk about it in terms of, may perhaps that project be participating in some unintended gentrification of a neighborhood? So this would be my response to that. Yes, I’d be happy to help you with that. We need that. And then my next question would be: who are your funders and if I look at the funding list and say, oh, that bank doesn’t live up to its [Community Reinvestment Act] responsibilities. It never has. I can’t work with you, if you’re going to get funding from a bank that won’t invest in that neighborhood. I’m sorry, I won’t help you further disinvest in a neighborhood. Find another bank, find another funder, and I will help you. But I am not going to participate in further alienating people in that neighborhood.
MN: Here’s another piece that I loved because I’ve just never thought about this before in this way. You say there’s a perception in architecture that if I don’t have a client, I can’t be of public use. And you push back on that and say, You’re not allowed to just hoard all your knowledge and only use it on people who pay for it. And I love this concept, because you also talked about how in medicine, there’s a Hippocratic oath. If you’re on an airplane, and someone says, Is there a doctor on board? We would not accept a doctor saying No, I’m on vacation, I’m not going to answer that call. But your comment for the first time made me consider what are the equivalencies for other fields. And in this case, for architects, what are the car accidents, the crime scenes, or the preventive work that architects should be contributing to resolving?
CW: So let me present it to you in this manner, it is going to sound somewhat didactic, simply because I’ve thought about this long and hard. And I also teach it to my students, as a way to understand where our responsibility lies as an architect. First of all, you don’t have a right to practice architecture, it’s a privilege. And that privilege is given to you by the society in which you live. So there is a social contract here. We’re in a society where monopolies are not supposed to happen. In a free and democratic society, you’re not supposed to monopolize anything. So the fact that you’ve been given a license to do something that nobody else can do, unless they have that license, you have a monopoly. Whether you want to agree to that or not, that is a monopoly. And as such, you have been granted that for a reason. And that reason is that you promise to use your professional monopolized skills for the good of everybody, not just a paying client. And if you don’t believe that is the case, every state in the United States has some variation of the justification for the architectural license. It is the health, safety and welfare of the public, not my client. As a matter of fact, that’s the only reason you have a license. It’s not because you design beautiful buildings; the aesthetic quality is never part of any licensing exam ever. You are responsible to the public, not your client. Period, end of story. Now, if you don’t like that, get out of architecture, do something else, you don’t have to be an architect. But that is the responsibility of your license. When you take it, you own it.
MN: I serve on the Plan Commission for the city, and just about every meeting when we have public comment, there’s a young man who comes with his comments prepared and he gives architectural critique of every development. And he is not a licensed architect, he has not gone to architecture school. I know this because [Planning and Development] Commissioner Cox was so intrigued with his insights that he sat down and talked to him. He has very informed opinions about how the spaces we are approving or disapproving can impact communities. And he takes it as his responsibility to speak to that in a public forum every single month.
CW: It isn’t just an architectural problem, right? I think this is a problem with our society, we have devalued the idea of what a professional is, and we believe that a professional is somebody who just gets paid for work. And that’s not true. There are varying definitions of what a professional is, but there are three parts that always remain consistent. One is that there is a specific body of knowledge that you have access to, and then engage in that body of knowledge in a manner in which your field has set standards. So you don’t get a license unless you’ve gotten an education in architecture. There are standards that you are taught to hold the license so that the public knows when they go to any architect, just like when they go to any doctor, any lawyer, they expect a certain level of service, they expect you to be able to do certain things. It stretches from education to practice. And the other part is because you get a license, there is a duty to not hoard that ability or that knowledge and sell it to the highest bidder. You have a duty to use that for the betterment of everyone. Those things are always in any definition of what a professional is. The pay is their recompense, it is not the reason. The reason is to protect the health, safety and welfare of the public. That is why you practice.
MN: And yet, you also argue that architecture has been hostile to the influence of people of color. And slow to recognize it, slow to embrace it, still slow to even discuss it. And trust me, I am not making an All Design Matters argument, but it made me think some bad architecture and bad design are universally bad, right? Car-centric design you see in all communities, and it’s bad everywhere. But we also know there is racialized bad architecture and bad design that penalizes Black and brown spaces and Black and brown people.
CW: Absolutely. And look, I am not knocking the skills that we have as architects; as a matter of fact, that’s what sets us apart. But when you focus primarily on the aesthetic quality of your product, typically, somebody is going to pay for you to do that.
Doctors can work in a sense without a client, they research, they do a bunch of other things. Lawyers, the same thing, (but) architects are almost solely client-driven, whether it’s a public or private client. So it’s really difficult for us, even those who understand the responsibility that we have to the general public, to argue to our clients that this shouldn’t be done, because it might be beneficial to you, but it might not be beneficial to the 2,000 other people in that particular neighborhood that you are trying to do your work in. And, you know, I would say there are architects who make that argument, who take on the idea of health, safety and welfare seriously. And there are some who just say, I can’t work on that project, because it clashes with my understanding of what my professional responsibility is. But most architects won’t do that. They won’t say that. If they say that, then that client will say, okay, that’s fine, and go right next door to your competitor.
MN: And so much for your righteous stance.
CW: And then there you go, right. And if you’ve got an office and there are people in your office that depend on you so they can raise their families and put food on the table and send their kids to college, that’s a hard stance to take.
MN: There are some firms in Chicago that I think of as places where you would gravitate if you want to make sure that you are working with a firm that’s led by a person of color, that shares your philosophy and commitment. And I will therefore gravitate to this firm that I know shares that. But how do you get to a point where you can create your own philosophy and have people seek you out for it, and how does the field support that?
CW: Before I answer that question, I’m going to give you some context so it will help you understand how I answered this. So when you get into the law profession, they make their students take an oath that’s their equivalent of the Hippocratic Oath, and that is a field-wide stance. It’s not an individual one; you don’t get to pick and choose that. And they also set up infrastructure for that to be visualized in the public. For example, they have law clinics where you can just go in and consult a lawyer with little to no pay. So that’s one way in which they are providing access to all that knowledge that they are holding, for public use. Another thing is they provide student-loan forgiveness if you work in the public sector, like in a public defender’s office, or if you run a law clinic or nonprofit organization. So they make an avenue for those who really want to do this, they make an avenue to make it possible. The third is pro bono work. Every law firm is supposed to do pro bono work. Do you know when pro bono was officially recognized by the American Institute of Architects? 2010.
MN: Wow. And if you’re a doctor in an underserved area, you get loan forgiveness too.
CW: Right. So, but again, this is a field-wide stance, the AMA, the med schools, everybody is on board for this. It’s not an individual choice. It is a position that they stand by, and not only do they stand by it, they provide avenues by which you can do it. Now, let’s look at architecture. Are you looking? Do you see anything?
MN: So what made the pro bono stance happen in 2010? Was there some push in the field?
CW: I think what’s happening is that there’s this slow recognition that the starchitect system, this one heroic person with the idea that pops forth from their head and everybody else just sort of follows, is really not the way in which the world is operating anymore. One of the reasons is because there’s so much information available. Like in the past you could say, this is x, y and z. And nobody could question you, because where do you get the information to question that person? But now, there’s so much available, that, you know, there’s enough knowledge—like that gentleman at the meeting, right? And it’s not just a knee-jerk protest, it is an informed position that you have to respond to, you can’t just brush them off like they don’t know anything. So you have to think differently about how you want to train your practitioners in the future, so that you continue to have a field that is seen as valuable, that the reason we have a license is because people believe architects have value for their lives. But if you don’t show the value, or if you only show value to those who are the highest bidder, then you’re nothing but an artist. And if that’s the case, then you don’t need a license. Go be an artist with somebody else to protect us.
Architecture is, for me, both a noun and a verb. It is a process, and a product. So the moment I sit down with a client, or the moment I take on a community project, I’m practicing. And I dare anybody to tell me that that’s not architecture.