Where cultural venues succeed in truly serving as hubs for their cities and communities, they allow for ‘town square’ types of activities, with organizations working closely with their neighbors to develop new types of programs, spaces, and experiences. For many cultural venues designed in the 19th and 20th centuries, this presents a challenge, with buildings designed as ‘cathedrals’ and ‘palaces’ of the arts, offering little, if any, interaction with their environment. Cultural buildings are now being reimagined to be more engaging and reach more diverse communities; to open and extend the functions of cultural institutions from that of pure education, presentation, and preservation, to co-commissioning, partnerships, and civic dialogue.

This reimagining of cultural spaces is part of a movement to advance equitable design. Earlier this summer, a series of conversations convened by Snyder Consultancy, Perkins&Will, and AEA Consulting brought together thought leaders, architects, and cultural sector professionals to discuss and explore this emergent topic. The  “charrettes” at Rethinking the 21st-Century Museum: Equitable Design asked the question: how can cultural organizations approach their design process and community engagement goals to reach a more inclusive process and outcome? Accomplishing this requires not just a focus on physical outcomes, but an eye on both history and process – two key takeaways that we discuss below.

But first, we need to define equitable design

As a process, equitable design engages with its core communities with a view to co-design spaces, and it follows the principles of universal design, where anyone and everyone can access and benefit from the space. In its physical manifestations, equitable design implies porous and welcoming buildings, ease of navigation, and outdoor spaces that allow for cultural programming and informal gatherings. Public programs seeking wider and deeper public engagement seek equitable design for spaces where such programs can take place. In turn, innovative approaches to designing cultural infrastructure – with close engagement of potential local users – can afford the opportunity to create environments that generate more vibrant and enjoyable public spaces. Through interactions between the civic and the artistic, and the creative and the social agendas, users are able to create, communicate, collaborate, ponder, and learn.

The equitable design process requires recognizing the histories of place

An important aspect of equitable design practice is the careful consideration of the histories of both buildings and the land itself. The Oakland Museum of California’s (OMCA) multi-phase renovation was sparked by realizations that its original architecture was preventing visitors from using the museum and its gardens as communal spaces. Opened in 1969, the Brutalist edifice was constructed with a wall bordering its campus. Early design plans, however, envisioned lining the perimeter with trees instead of concrete and multiple entrances. OMCA’s ultimate enclosure seems to have been in reaction to the tumultuous sociopolitical climate of the 1960’s – especially given the museum’s location across from the courthouse where notable rallies against the trial of Black Panther co-founder Huey Newton occurred. Security and property protection, which are seen as inherently exclusionary values, likely became key aims guiding the museum’s architecture. Renovating OMCA’s campus to better serve as a civic hub thus meant first recognizing the historical context and logics behind the museum’s original design.

In contrast, the artist-run and -centered space, the Poor Farm, intentionally preserves its original architecture to bring into focus the troubling history of the American Poor Farm System. The art organization is situated in the former Waupaca County Poor Farm in rural Wisconsin. These local government-owned institutions were built to house, discipline, and isolate the destitute from the rest of society. Residents were considered inmates who were required to perform farm labor for unhealthy living conditions. The Poor Farm acts as an artifact of these failed social reforms and further reckons with the issues raised by poor farms through exhibits and programming.

Questions of land and the surrounding landscape when constructing a new infrastructure call our attention to The National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC). NMAAHC’s highly visible building asserts itself with its distinct style reflecting African and Black American sensibilities. Simultaneously, the museum is geographically aligned with and pays deference to other structures on the Mall such as the Washington Monument. Participants during the charrette picked up on the tension that arises from NMAAHC being at the heart of “America’s Front Yard.” Its presence announces the crucial role Black communities play in shaping the nation, yet becomes associated with a site of historic – land that was occupied by plantations and slave pens and markets – and ongoing white supremacist violence, as was seen with the January 6th insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. This effort to contend with the power hierarchies embedded in buildings and sites reflects overall institutional struggles to confront legacies of exploitation that cannot be erased.

Crucially prioritizing community engagement is vital

At the core of equitable design are also forward planning processes with a human-centered approach, directly involving members of the local community that the infrastructure inevitably seeks to serve. Public consultations throughout the duration of the project have been the gold standard method for engaging target audiences.

The unveiling of the  Olympic & Paralympic Museum (2020) in Colorado Springs exemplifies a community development project illuminating the stories of inspiring U.S. Olympians and Paralympians through inclusive design. These athletes, together with prominent sports figures and accessibility experts, were involved at every stage of design. Their responses to museum design and programming with a focus on telling stories not just about sport but wider societal issues – were the building blocks informing the overall vision. Building a museum with such innovative universal design practices – comprised of elements like wide ramps; museum pathways taken by all visitors; and interactive technologies accommodating different ability needs (e.g., height levels, text size, audio) – would not be possible if not for the project team’s constant discussions around inclusivity in content as well as architecture.  

Destination Crenshaw in Los Angeles is a similar landmark project where scaling outwards was key to engagement in an area where decades of disinvestment in the African American community led to a lack of recognition amongst an abundance of cultural enclaves. From informal light touch events to formal partnerships and meetings throughout the years of the design process, the formation of an advisory council comprised of urban planners, historians, artists, and local community organizers elevated understanding and traced the history of the African American community in South L.A. – stories of migration and the subsequent impact it has had in the area today. Drawing on key thematic areas of the African American experience, the design process of the 1.3-mile infrastructure along Crenshaw Boulevard and the recent public art commission of 100 black artists, has inspired designers to use materials, colors, and design features as metaphorical representations of displacement and sense of place.

From the onset of development, shifting the responsibility of knowledge gathering to community members to inform the final outcome is an element of discipline that not only enhances the value of the project, but also constantly draws architectural designers back to the underlying rationale behind a new construction to ensure that they stay on course. In AEA’s work, the development of cultural masterplans for foundations, commercial, and government organizations provides opportunities for community-centered workshops and public consultations to influence the overall vision of the target area. For cultural institutions to remain relevant it takes humility and a recognition of power imbalances between project sponsors and key audience members to tap into equitable design processes and methodologies.

We must continue the conversation

These summer charrettes – and above reflection – aim to focus a conversation on the ways architectural design plays an integral part and dovetails the work of other cultural sector disciplines in creating a sense of belonging. In addition, discussions about histories of place must address settler colonialism and the trauma perpetuated by occupying stolen land. The very notions of placemaking and placekeeping draw heavily from Indigenous knowledge and perspectives and practices of Indigenous communities would be beneficial to consider further. This is not an end to the conversation, but a beginning that we aim to continue in future cultural spaces being designed now.

Mario Washington-Ihieme is a Research Analyst at AEA Consulting. Isabella Ko participated in AEA’s 2021 Summer Analyst program.

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