New Weitzman Courses Respond to a Year of Upheaval
From COVID-19 to the Black Lives Matter protests, the presidential election and failed insurrection, the historic events of the past year have begun to transform society in ways that scholars at Penn and beyond are only starting to explore. Design professionals are increasingly expected to account for the political and public-health implications of their work, be more engaged with the communities where they work, and pursue new forms of design practice. For the 2020-2021 Academic Year, faculty members across the Weitzman School responded with a number of new graduate courses and studios.
In the Department of Architecture, Lecturer Eduardo Rega Calvo organized a new seminar for the fall semester, Rebellious Architecture: On Social Movements For Spatial Justice. That course builds on the theoretical aspects of the recurring Architectures of Refusal seminar that Rega has offered, focused on the South Bronx. The seminar leans on readings about rebellion and social movements in the U.S. and around the globe, the production of space, and “how architecture has been complicit in systems of oppression,” Rega says. It was conceptualized before the pandemic began, but sharpened by the unequal impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic, and by the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor by police officers in Minneapolis and Louisville. Much of the reading material for the course comes out of social movements in the 1960s and ‘70s, and society now finds itself at “another tipping point,” Rega says.
“I’ve been interested in questions of inequality and structural discrimination based on class and race and gender for many years,” Rega says. “But what happened [in 2020] … created a sort of accelerated or expanded or intensified mirror of the structural inequalities that we see around us.”
Students like Eric Anderson (MArch‘21) enrolled because it offered an alternative to “the more doctrinaire approach to architectural pedagogy” of other seminars, Anderson says.
“It sounded like a very timely and pressing class to me, one that suggested a lot of alternatives,” Anderson says.
For his final project, Anderson researched Resurrection City, a 42-day occupation of the National Mall during the Civil Rights Movement in 1968 which “challenged the spatial relationship between people who felt unrepresented by the government and the government itself,” Anderson says. The course helped situate the upheavals of 2020 in a broader historical context, while exploring the architectural dimensions of social movements, Anderson says. Natalia Revelo la Rotta (MArch‘21) had taken Rega’s Architectures of Refusal course, and enrolled in the Rebellious Architecture seminar with the goal of pushing forward her thesis project, focused on the distribution of water in Rio de Janeiro. Architecture and architecture education have often been fashioned as “depoliticized” pursuits, Revelo says. Partly as a result of the Black Lives Matter protests over the summer, more students were interested in courses that explore designers’ role in reproducing systemic racism and exploitation.
“At this point, we’ve had about six years of school and this is the first time that a lot of [students] are engaging in these topics,” Revelo says.
Revelo, who is on the executive board of the student organization Inclusion in Design, was a co-author of an open letter to the dean of the Weitzman School after George Floyd’s killing, which called on the dean to “acknowledge complicity in a system which has systematically oppressed and marginalized entire communities, a system to which the ideals of our School should be directly opposed.” That letter, and others like it at other universities, were part of the curriculum in Graduate Architecture Lecturer Juliana Rowen Barton’s six-week seminar course, Making Space, Making Race.
The course “explores architecture as a way of imagining, building and validating a racialized world,” according to the syllabus. Barton, who worked with Weitzman architecture faculty while completing her Ph.D. in the History of Art in the School of Arts and Sciences, designed the course over the summer. The discussions and readings—including a series of student-authored open letters to design schools written amid the Black Lives Matter protests in the spring and summer—were meant to help students understand “the ways in which racial identities are constructed through the built environment,” Barton wrote on the syllabus. Many students ended up saying they enrolled in the course because of the protests and conversations about racism in the U.S.
“I think it’s been relevant forever, but I think in the past year it’s become something that architecture schools can’t brush off anymore,” says Jordanna Ibghy (MArch‘22). “It’s something that we’ve been forced to confront face-on.”
Students in the half-semester course created proposals for museum exhibitions related to race and architecture. Barton says that if she were to run it again, she’d take an even bigger step back, and include more foundational readings about the construction of racial identities in America.
“I designed it, in some ways, as the course that I wish that I’d been able to take,” Barton says. “So I hope that students got as much out of it as I did.”
Black Lives Matter protests also formed the backdrop for the fall urban design studio, Planning and Design Tools for Equitable Neighborhood Change, led by Nando Micale, a lecturer in the Department of City and Regional Planning. The studio was focused on the Grays Ferry Riverfront District across the Schuylkill River from Penn’s main campus. It was premised on the likelihood that development and gentrification will continue spreading along the Schuylkill Riverfront into Grays Ferry, and built off of work done in a Grays Ferry-focused studio last spring, and the Grays Ferry Healthy Corridor Project carried out by PennPraxis and the Urban Land Institute. As Micale wrote in the syllabus, “The question for this studio is: ‘How do we as urban planners and designers lead the effort to provide low-income neighborhoods with the tools to engage with developers, city regulatory agencies, and city political leadership in advocating for equitable neighborhood redevelopment? What does neighborhood advocacy and equity planning look like in 2020 and beyond?’”
Tyler Bradford (MCP‘21) enrolled in the studio because it was one of only a few that had an in-person component, with a neighborhood tour early in the semester, and because Grays Ferry was in the news after an explosion at the nearby Philadelphia Energy Solutions oil refinery. The neighborhood was historically redlined and an environmental justice area, and the studio was focused on trying to empower residents in the face of development and gentrification.
“It was trying to develop a plan for advocacy of ways that neighborhood groups and individuals can take charge and have a seat at the table in that process, and express their wants and their priorities,” Bradford says.
The students worked to build tools that would help residents participate in the development of their neighborhood. Micale says he urged them to push past what was immediately politically feasible and develop meaningful ways for residents to take control of their neighborhood’s evolution.
“Don’t propose what you think can happen,” Micale says he told the students. “Propose what you think should happen.”
Department of Landscape Architecture lecturers Rebecca Popowsky (MArch‘10, MLA‘10) and Sarai Williams (MCP‘17, MLA‘17) are working on the same challenge in their spring course, Unruly Practices: Retooling professional design practice for relevance and impact. “The widening gap between the work that urgently needs to get done and the work that can be done in current professional practice is driving a generation of landscape architects, architects and planners to search out and create new mechanisms for purpose-driven design action,” they wrote on the syllabus. Both Popowsky and Williams work with OLIN in Philadelphia—Williams as a landscape designer and Popowsky as a research associate with OLIN Labs. Popowsky says many students are anxious about finding ways to carry what they see as their social and political responsibilities into their professional lives. They organized the course as a “distributed symposium,” inviting guest designers and researchers to be interviewed by the students in each course meeting. Students in the course are assigned either to pursue their own research or activism agenda through a grant proposal, pilot project, or business plan, or to contribute to the symposium itself, which Popowsky envisions as “a multi-year experiment,” by seeking out new practitioners and activists to participate.
“The success will be if, in future years, we see a community building up around this conversation and a more supportive community of practice,” Popowsky says.
The degree to which the COVID-19 pandemic has affected every area of life got Associate Professor Aaron Wunsch thinking about the legacy of outbreaks past. For the spring semester, Wunsch, who teaches in the Graduate Program in Historic Preservation and the Department of Landscape Architecture, is joining forces with David Barnes, associate professor of the history and sociology of science in the School of Arts and Sciences, for a course called Remembering Epidemics. Wunsch and Barnes have collaborated before on Philadelphia-focused public history courses. The new course entails “an analysis of traumatic epidemics in Philadelphia’s history,” with a focus on the yellow fever epidemic of 1793, the 1918-19 flu epidemic, the AIDS epidemic, and COVID-19. There are built legacies of many of these events—the Philadelphia Lazaretto was the first quarantine hospital in the U.S., and the early villas and suburbs on Philadelphia’s outskirts were partly a response to yellow fever—but “it’s not just a story of architecture and landscape,” Wunsch says. Students will spend the semester studying “the origins, course, and consequences of epidemics, as well as the nature of public commemoration.”
“This class aims to look at pandemics and the built environment with Philadelphia as the anchor, but not as the totality,” Wunsch says. “If you use yellow fever as a departure point, you get into all kinds of aspects of urban history.”
The Weitzman School’s curriculum, like all schools’, evolves with the times. But designers, preservationists, and planners are likely to be grappling with the events of the last year for generations to come.