August 7, 2020

REJournals Interviews Andrew Balster on Designing for Social Impact

REJournals has published a new Q+A with Andrew Balster, our Chicago Office Leader, on designing for social impact and possibilities for the city of Chicago.

Andrew has a deep passion for both public interest design and the City of Chicago. While guiding our 200-person Chicago office, Andrew continues to explore opportunities for social equity and justice as he fosters community and civic partnerships across the city. He previously served as the executive director of Archeworks, a design lab and think-tank focused on using the power of design to confront social, cultural and environmental urban challenges.

The full REJournals interview is available online. Below are key excerpts:

What role can architecture play to bring about positive change within a community? Can poor design create harmful outcomes?

I’m a firm believer that architecture represents the dominant ideology of our times and is a representation of the powers that be. However, I think that too often architecture is, in the 21st Century at least, representing a generic whole, not representing a really acute condition within a community. Look at places like Pilsen which has been really successful, though not perfect. They’ve done everything they can to preserve the historic character and cultural character of that neighborhood. I think we’re seeing the Generic City that was laid out by Koolhaas 20 years ago play itself out in every way, shape and form.

Can architecture be a positive mechanism for change in a community? Without question. The issue is the architect is usually not in control of that. It’s built upon the developers, consumerism, investment and, ultimately, government powers. They kind of set the constraints by which architects work within. We’ve seen successful examples across the city, but when it comes to whether or not poor design can create harmful outcomes, just look at projects like the CHA in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s. That was a designed entity that separated masses by race and by income level. It can very much be a divisive force.

What opportunities are out there right now in Chicago where commercial real estate can find synergy with equitable development?

I deeply supported the INVEST South/West initiative. It’s almost like an IDIQ where you would be a preferred vendor. When an opportunity comes along in Englewood, for example, and it fits with your expertise offerings, you can compete for an RFP when it comes out. It is basically building an arsenal of intellectual capital and organizations that are on the docket ready to work on the next Chinatown library or in Pullman. There is so much investment out there and this is where we need to see opportunity for big ideas.

We’re seeing it with projects like The 78, but that’s still kind of in the central business district. The periphery of the West Side and the South Side have been neglected and disinvested for so many years. I think that our previous mayor did a lot of great things, quite honestly. I mean, he built up Fulton Market in in a way that nobody else could, but it didn’t it didn’t provide equitable distribution. I think what Mayor Lightfoot is doing right now is providing equitable distribution and involving the key players from the heart of the city to get involved in those communities. It’s going to take time, it’s not an overnight thing. But I think that the way she’s set it up is really powerful because developers will start to see the incentives.

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