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Spring 2018 — Workshop #1 Season Kick-Off: Anjulie Rao on Communication and Design

Last Monday, we kicked off the new season in a new location (a 13th floor conference room at Roosevelt University) thanks to our partnership with the Policy Research Collaborative. After getting a satisfying fill of the room’s dizzying vista, we listened to Anjulie Rao, Editor of Chicago Architect Magazine, talk about her experiences with public space, people, and the role communication plays in a responsibly designed world. Her past experiences have driven her to look for intersections to create opportunities for public understanding and critique of the built environment. Some of her most formative observations include watching videos of ecstatic NASA scientists and engineers, hearing screaming neighborhood citizens, and living the unexpectedly lonely life of journalism. Her experiences reflect a central belief of City Open Workshoppers that a diverse experience leads to a more empathic, equitable, and informed mindset.

After earning a degree in art history from the University of Colorado, she worked in Denver as an art critic and journalist and subsequently she realized a few things about herself. As a journalist, she didn’t interact much with people because most of her time was spent writing and researching at a computer and making infrequent phone calls. As an art critic, she was dismayed to find that people at large don’t react very publicly or very passionately to art. These were problems because as a strongly empathic individual, she wanted to connect with people. Once she discovered the fervor of her neighbors’ reactions to development plans for a vacant lot, and after reading loads of passionate comments about architecture online, she gained an interest in architectural journalism. She earned a master’s degree in New Arts Journalism from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and spent a few years working for civic-oriented organizations like Chicago Architecture Foundation and Curbed and eventually fell into the position of Communications Director at AIA Chicago where her primary role is editing Chicago Architect Magazine.

Rao strives for responsible and accessible reporting that instigates progress towards more socially equitable architecture, urbanism, and planning. For instance, she works to acknowledge groups marginalized by the design world, particularly women of color. (In August 2017, the US gained its 400th black, female, licensed architect. That means black women represent just 0.3% of about 110,000 licensed architects in the US.) She also supports a philosophy of “radical urbanism” that promotes transparency in the design process -- people should be able to know what is going on in their neighborhood and voice their opinion about it. Radical urbanism intends to promote local sense of ownership and responsibility as well as closer integration of local values and needs. These positions run counter to the status quo and, therefore, they can be difficult to realize.

During our workshop, we discussed several challenges of communication to be overcome. The construction of our environment is primarily driven by profit and detached, top-down design which can give it a reputation lacking emotion. However, Rao finds inspiration in videos from inside NASA mission control rooms where seemingly emotionless scientists and engineers rejoice and grieve in tears following the ups and downs of their missions. If emotion can be found so freely in the world of science and engineering, surely it can be found in the world of architecture and planning as well.

It can also be incredibly difficult for citizens to provide effective feedback about design proposals. Public hearings are often announced with little lead time, during times of the day when most people work, and formal complaints can require complicated, bureaucratic processes and paperwork. Though, if you can make it to one of these hearings, you’ll likely be encouraged by the tenacity of the citizens in attendance loudly defending their neighborhoods from racial injustice, gentrification, and any other negative impact these proposals might impose.

Furthermore, we can find hope in democratized digital spaces like blog comments sections where anyone can be heard and anyone can organize. One solitary voice might not be enough to sway the course of a planned development, but with our widespread internet access, there is no reason we can’t find neighbors with similar viewpoints and unite to make an impactful declaration.

These challenges affect nearly every aspect of our city’s healthy development so it is crucial that organizations like Chicago Architect Magazine and City Open Workshop continue to empower people through the platform of design. This season, City Open Workshop will focus on three main issues: Helping to guide responsible ownership and development of previously vacant lots, promoting on-site affordable housing as a profitable and desirable feature in Pilsen, and identifying church adaptations that can maximize benefit to their communities.

City Open Workshop is happy to take any amount of help, from anyone and, if you know of a problem in Chicago that could possibly be addressed by interdisciplinary design thinking, drop us a line.


Workshop agenda + notes here.

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