ryan C. Lee vividly remembers being a small child in Trenton, New Jersey and watching his grandmother painfully climbing a steep staircase in her house.
Today, Lee—an architect, writer, and activist whose work combines building design with social justice—says his awareness of the ways in which architecture often fails inhabitants began with that image.
“It was partially the genesis of living with my grandmother,” Lee explains.
Lee is the featured speaker at MADE 2017, a lecture series organized by Media Architecture Design Edmonton (MADE) a volunteer run not-for-profit organization that exists to provide a forum for discussion of media, architecture, and design in Edmonton. The theme of this year’s series is “Design and Human Rights,” and Lee will kick off the series with a lecture on ‘Design Justice.’
Lee says from a schooling standpoint, architects are taught to be focused on themselves, the creators, and “ignore the user, ignore the people who have the most need.”
After completing his undergrad, Lee came to an impasse with his calling as an architect. If he was going to continue in the profession, he says, “there needed to be something more purposeful about the work.”
Grad school at New Jersey’s Institute of Technology provided him with an expanded context.
“My idea of what was possible, of the kind of work that could be done by architects of colour changed,” he says.
He’s been heavily involved with the National Organization of Minority Architects ever since, most recently as the national director for the organization’s Project Pipeline Mentorship Program. Lee was given the reins five years ago, with a specific mandate to steer the program toward social justice education and solutions.
For Lee, there is a fundamental relationship between architecture and a more abstract social reality.
“The architecture that surrounds us allows us to manifest paths of least resistance in our daily lives,” Lee says.
At the same time, architecture that surrounds many people becomes a literal barrier, a source of physical, social, and psychological hindrance that often represents attitudes of prejudice and attempts to subjugate particular groups of people.
But Lee’s concerns extend into architectural and zoning policy as well as the physical spaces people inhabit. He is interested in disinherited neighbourhoods and urban areas in which policies designed to assist certain neighbourhoods more than others have created circumstances of material and social disparity. Often this disparity is drawn along racial lines, as with the well-documented process of “redlining” in the United States—in which housing loans are refused to African-Americans.
The parallels between the effects of architecture on African Americans and on indigenous people in Canada should not be ignored. Though Lee is quick to note that he isn’t familiar with the specific obstacles members of indigenous communities face, he points out the obvious “spatial injustice through the built environment—and through the spaces that were taken and devalued.”
Lee thinks that changes in architecture and policy must happen in parallel in order to be effective, but the focus of his company, Colloqate Design, is on finding practical design solutions to problems that often occur as a result of bad policy.
“Architecture doesn’t have the luxury of iteration,” he says. “These things will be around for 100 years.”
Currently, Lee is working on a marketplace that will be built underground, below a highway that has recently bisected a community in New Orleans. An entire business community was disrupted by the highway’s construction, and Lee’s design for the 2,300 square metre marketplace is aimed at reconnecting the two separated halves.
Another work in progress is New Harmony High, an environmental justice high school built on a barge on a river in Louisiana.
One of Lee’s key ideas is “design as protest.” His hope is that, in addition to providing an improved experience to the communities in which these projects are being developed, the solutions themselves will help to demonstrate how existing policies and design impact people.