Community Design Centers (CDCs) emerged in the context of the US civil rights movement and the women's liberation movement of the 1950s and 1960s, generally providing technical and design advice to communities who could otherwise not afford it. The political climate at the time led planners, architects and designers to view themselves as advocates for those excluded from the design process, and to see urban planning not as a technical or bureaucratic issue but as a political one. Paul Davidoff's concept of 'advocacy planning' was influential in this characterisation of architecture and urban planning as an engaged and participatory process of positive social change. Within architecture in particular, this concern was widespread and can be seen as a reaction to the mechanised and technological tendencies of Modernism.
Whilst state funding was available at the beginning, by the 1970s the political climate had changed and public programmes were withdrawn. Those groups who had initially relied on this now became non-profit, voluntary organisations. Today, CDCs cover a broad political spectrum, while some still have a radical politics, others are closer to the neo-conservatism of movements such as New Urbanism. CDCs share a common aim to engage local communities in the design and development process. They do so through community participation and mobilisation against imposed master-planning and regeneration strategies.
One of the first CDCs was the Architects Renewal Committee of Harlem (ARCH) founded in 1964, whose director was Max Bond Jnr. The group came together to fight against proposals for a new freeway in northern Manhattan, and later provided a range of services from design and technical support to training and information. Although some of its members were architects, others included a lawyer, editor and community organisers. They were associated with the Black Power movement and much of their work was concerned with the alleviation of poverty in the ghettos. ARCH was funded by grants and received contracts from various community organisations.
The climate of the 1960s also had a major influence on educational institutions resulting in many CDCs being affiliated to universities, such as the Yale Building Project at Yale University, Pratt Center for Community Development at the Pratt Institute, the Community Development Group at North Carolina State University and the Detroit Collaborative Design Center at the University of Detroit-Mercy. These organisations combined teaching and training for students with a service to the wider community; pedagogically process was emphasised over finished product, and an increasing importance placed on practical experience.
Whether independent or affiliated to an educational institution, CDCs question traditional roles and power relations, such as those between the architect and user or student and teacher. Architecture and design are viewed as tools for an ethical intervention in the built environment and the transformative potential of architectural practice is underlined through a participative approach that works for those least able to afford the services of a traditional architect.
Oliver Clemens, Jesko Fezer, and Sabine Horlitz, eds.,
'Community Design. Involvement and Architecture in the US since
1963', Anarchitektur, 2008.
Paul Davidoff, 'Advocacy and pluralism in planning', Journal of the American Planning Association, 31 (1965), 331-338.
Paul Jenkins and Leslie Forsyth, eds., Architecture, Participation and Society (London: Routledge, 2009).
Henry Sanoff, Community Participation Methods in Design and Planning (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1999).
---, Seeing the Environment: An Advocacy Approach (Learning Environments, 1975).
---, Three Decades of Design and Community (Raleigh: North Carolina State University, 2003).
Priscilla Tucker, 'Poor Peoples' Plan', The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, New Series, 27 (1969), 265-269.
'We are concerned with changing the architect's role. We
envision a changefrom the architect representing the rich patron to
the architect representing the poor, representing them as
individuals and as an interest group.'
- Architects' Renewal Committee in Harlem, 1968, quoted in, Tucker, Priscilla, 'Poor Peoples' Plan', The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, New Series, 27 (1969): 265.
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