• Frank Gehry, FAIA, and Doreen Gehry Nelson, Hon. AIA, discuss the value of design education. - photo by Rachel Cooper

Creative professionals from around the world convened in Austin in early March for the annual South by Southwest conference and festival. SXSW EDU, an event that fosters innovation and learning within the education industry, kicked off the two weeks of festival programming and was followed by the SXSW primary event, which brings together industry leaders in tech, film, music, design, and culture. SXSW EDU keynote presenters included architect Frank Gehry, FAIA, and his sister and educator Doreen Gehry Nelson, Hon. AIA, who spoke about their work as pioneers in the design-based learning space in the late 1960s. Video footage from 1972 showed the pair leading a California classroom of fifth graders through a city building project. After being assigned various city-government roles, students were tasked with creating solutions for transportation, housing, park space, and more. The design challenge required children to work through content-related problems, prompting critical thinking, decision-making, and cross-curriculum integration. Though the exercise demonstrated the power of design as a tool for learning even in early education, many teachers in the school pushed back against the Gehrys for deviating from standard ways of learning. More than half a century later, conversations around traditional education models are still taking place, with little curriculum change occurring in the classroom. The Gehry siblings, however, continue to champion breaking away from the norm. “I think all of us think differently than each other because we all have our own signature,” says Frank Gehry. “You’ve got to stick with that difference.” 

Another notable panel, “Designing Powerful Schools & Communities,” highlighted how communities might begin to rethink the physical space and structure of schools. The nation’s aging K-12 infrastructure is in dire need of investment, with a quarter of all school buildings in need of at least one major renovation, and an estimated $87 billion per year shortfall on capital and maintenance funding for schools. One proposed way of thinking about the design of school infrastructure is by creating more community schools — facilities that integrate academics, youth and community development, health and social services, and other community resources in one place to improve community resilience. While the goals are lofty and can be limited by safety and security concerns, the model shows a creative approach to addressing the needs of schools and communities and points to the need for collaboration between school leaders and architects. An audience poll at the session’s end revealed that the item deemed by educators most needed to implement this model was design guidelines — an area prime for architects’ expertise. 

“Transforming Cities into Playful Learning Landscapes” showcased the power of cities to effect positive learning outcomes in young learners. While most of the policymaking in this area has been focused on improving formal learning environments, only 20 percent of a child’s waking time is spent inside of a classroom. Playful Learning Landscapes, established in 2019 by the Brookings Institution between its Center for Universal Education and Bass Center for Transformative Placemaking, aims to combine educational opportunities outside the classroom with architectural placemaking. Much of their early work has been implemented and tested in Philadelphia, and results suggest that transforming public spaces like supermarkets, laundromats, parks, and even libraries and sidewalks with well-designed games that flex cognitive and social muscles changes behavior and interactions in ways known to support children’s development. For example, research on the impact of one of these urban “thinkscapes” shows that 34 percent of families talked more about STEM-related topics than at the local playground and overall interactions between caregiver and child increased by 24 percent after engaging with the space. These type of learning landscapes have the potential to reduce learning gaps that improve outcomes in formal learning environments in areas like reading and math proficiency. 

Issues surrounding equitable access to high-quality buildings and urban spaces also carried through to the primary SXSW event. While numerous sessions highlighted the ongoing barriers to and need for basics like affordable housing, many of the solutions offered were the same that have been discussed in the industry for a decade or more, doubling down on the neoliberal economic position of bigger, faster, cheaper. In one discussion on “Housing’s Need for Innovation on a Global Scale,” three panelists in construction and manufacturing were asked to provide one word that describes what will be needed to address today’s housing needs — offered up were industrialization, collaboration, and standardization. In order to reach the scale and volume necessary to disrupt the housing crisis, panelists agreed, the idea of housing made in a factory must become commonplace. 

The idea of increasing the production scale of housing was echoed in a panel hosted by ICON Co-Founder and CEO Jason Ballard, in conversation with the University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture Dean Michelle Addington, architect Bjarke Ingels, and Sarah Satterlee, director of architecture with Austin’s Mobile Loaves & Fishes, a nonprofit focused on ending homelessness. All seats in the room were filled, and Ballard noted, “This is like the first standing-room only panel on affordable housing in the history of the universe.” Though the powerhouse panel drew a significant crowd, the discussion on this complex topic remained surface level and would have benefited from someone who could speak on policymaking. Unfortunately, no time was allotted for questions from the audience, which also could have provided opportunity for a more in-depth discussion on the subject. Instead, ICON announced their “Initiative 99” competition, asking architects around the world to design “accessible, beautiful, and dignified 3D-printed homes that can be built for under $99,000.” The winning design will receive a $1 million prize. The event concluded with a party on the Long Center lawn, complete with live music on a freshly 3D-printed performance pavilion, which felt, at best, off-key following a discussion on societal inequities. 

But hope for meaningful action could still be found in “Designing Justice: Architects in Social Activism,” a session focusing on the work of Oakland-based Designing Justice + Designing Spaces, an architecture and real estate development nonprofit working to end mass incarceration by building infrastructure that addresses its root causes: poverty, racism, and the criminal justice system itself. The session focused on the work of DJDS and was co-led by Brandi Mack, the director of community engagement strategies at DJDS, and Raphael Sperry, architect, human rights advocate, board president of DJDS, and associate principal/global social equity and social value skills leader at ARUP. Founded by Deanna Van Buren (one of only 500 black women architects in the U.S.), DJDS is the country’s only Black-woman-led architecture firm focused on ending mass incarceration through the design of alternatives to incarceration, biomimicry, and permaculture. The organization is working to unbuild racism that is designed into the built environment and instead introduce new restorative infrastructures. While its work began with design, the nonprofit soon realized it would also need to step into real estate development to implement its vision. “Developer doesn’t have to be a bad word,” says Sperry. “Developer could actually mean we’re lifting up our communities.” The world-renowned conference and festival is sure to inspire thoughtful conversations around design and society again next year when SXSW EDU returns to Austin on March 4–7, 2024, followed by SXSW on March 8–16, 2024. 

Rachel Cooper is the communications coordinator at the Texas Society of Architects. Anastasia Calhoun, Assoc. AIA, NOMA, is the editor of Texas Architect. 

Leave a Comment