• GilderCenter_GriffinAtrium_(c)Iwan-Baan
    Griffin Exploration Atrium in the Richard Gilder Center for Science, Education, and Innovation. - photo by Iwan Baan

Packed with people, panels, and protests, this year’s iteration of Austin’s signature spring festival, SXSW, continued to spotlight society’s most pressing issues, including the future of design through the lenses of accessibility, community building, and sustainability. The event took place March 8–16, with more than 300,000 people from across the globe gathering to learn from and engage with industry leaders in tech, film, music, design, and culture. Unlike previous years, however, this year was marked by political protests as dozens of artists and panelists pulled out of the festival, citing the involvement of several weapons companies and agencies tied to the U.S. Department of Defense. 

The festival’s design track featured discussions on the multifaceted impact of design in perpetuating systems of inequity and discrimination based on race, gender, and physical and psychological ability. In “Structures of Feeling: Imagining Disability as Design Lens,” spatial strategist and Mental Landscapes founder Kelsey Zlevor unpacked the nuanced challenges of those experiencing trauma and depression in their interactions with public spaces, emphasizing public parks and landscapes. Zlevor was joined by co-presenter Alexa Vaughn, a UCLA PhD student, landscape designer, and DeafScape consultant, and the two aimed to extend the discourse on the Americans with Disabilities Act, with special focus paid to those with psychological and sensory disabilities in relation to public landscapes and outdoor environments. Nearly twenty-four years following the enactment of the ADA, initiatives such as DeafScape and Mental Landscapes supplement legal accessibility requirements and illustrate the imperative for designers to engage and collaborate with disabled communities to create exceedingly inclusive physical public spaces where all individuals can experience the joy of community and nature.

“Nothing for us without us” was a call echoed throughout the conference and underscored by a discussion with housing activists in “Designing a Disability-Forward Housing Future.” A panel comprised of members from The Kelsey, Liberty Resources, New Disabled South, and Los Angeles Metro spoke on the intersection of accessibility and affordability in housing, citing personal challenges often overlooked by designers and policymakers. The panel highlighted hurdles ranging from application processes and decade-long waiting lists to transportation access and inadequate funding and providers for essential housing and in-home support services. Notably, more than 600,000 Americans are currently awaiting federal waivers to receive in-home or community-based services, illustrating an urgent need for systemic improvements.

Regarding the physical design of housing, demands were made for an increase in federally assisted new construction housing to double the legal minimum unit allotments of physically accessible units to ten percent and to triple sensory-accessible units to six percent. Allie Cannington, senior manager of The Kelsey, shared case studies of the organization’s efforts to expand housing design standards to accommodate cross-disability access needs, community living, affordability, public transportation, and medical and personal services.

In their panel “How Design Thinking Protects White Supremacy,” Antionette Carroll, president and CEO of the Creative Reaction Lab and Institute of Equitable Design & Justice, joined Tania Anaissie, founder and CEO of Beytna Design, to examine the methodologies of design-thinking through a critical lens, particularly concerning matters of race. Together, they explored the “subtle and pervasive presence of white supremacy” in community engagement efforts, approaching the discussion with a commitment to transparency. 

Carroll, who established the Creative Reaction Lab in 2014 in response to the uprising in Ferguson, Missouri, offered candid insights into the inadvertent reinforcement of oppressive systems by designers, emphasizing that “design is a political act—there is no neutral impact.” Despite well-intentioned community engagement efforts, harmful outcomes can occur. Carroll and Anaissie identified the tendency of designers to attribute such outcomes solely to “bad designers,” rather than acknowledging the inherent flaws in utilizing design-thinking as a mechanism of power, prioritizing the designer’s perspective over the contribution of others. Anaissie advocated for a shift away from conventional approaches to community engagement and toward codesign, in which community members are empowered, recognized, and compensated as coauthors, broadening positive outcomes beyond merely positive intentions.

Rounding out the design track was “Building Resilient Public Spaces in a Time of Crisis,” a panel discussion featuring Jeanne Gang, FAIA, founding partner of Studio Gang; Sean Decatur, president of the American Museum of Natural History; and Eric Klinenberg, sociologist and director of the Institute for Public Knowledge at New York University. Together they discussed the importance of public spaces and institutions as foundations for building cohesive, resilient communities. The panel highlighted long-running efforts of the American Museum of Natural History in New York as not only a space for public education but as an institution with a broader role in civic life for New Yorkers. In 1909, the museum hosted the International Tuberculosis Exhibition as a way of educating the masses on the public health crisis. More than 100 years later, the museum served as the second largest vaccination site in New York City during the COVID-19 pandemic. The discussion also covered the museum’s new Richard Gilder Center for Science, Education, and Innovation, completed in 2023 and designed by Studio Gang. Gang described design strategies used to make the museum more inviting to broader swaths of the public, like placing the entrance at the ground level and including a social stair as well as rounded portal openings to instill a sense of curiosity.

Next year’s SXSW festival will be held March 7–15, 2025. According to KXAN Austin, the Austin Convention Center is scheduled to be demolished after the festival. Following a complete rebuild, it will reopen in 2029.  

Alisha Burkman, AIA, is a senior designer at Overland Partners in San Antonio. Rachel Cooper is the communications coordinator at the Texas Society of Architects. Anastasia Calhoun, Assoc. AIA, NOMA, is the editor of Texas Architect.

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