In Conversation with Christopher Locke of Designing in Color
Thursday, February 25, 2021
Thursday, February 25, 2021
In October 2020, the UMass Department of Architecture invited Designing in Color (DCo), a design justice organization, to lead the faculty through a workshop focused on anti-racist practices in architectural design education. This was one of many steps being taken by the faculty to create a more socially-just curriculum and educational experience.
DCo was founded by Christopher Locke and Opalia Meade who both attended UMass from 2010–2014 and graduated with their bachelor’s degrees in architecture. Christopher and Opalia, along with friend Rubin Quarcoopome, started DCo, shortly after earning their Master’s of Architecture degrees. Together, they lead workshops, engage communities, and work to amplify the voices of underrepresented design professionals. DCo was recognized for their work by the American Institute of Architects (AIA) as a 2019 Diversity Program Honoree. Faculty member Erika Zekos spoke with Christopher about his own architecture education, his experience as a young practitioner, and the goals of DCo.
Zekos: Why did you choose architecture as your major?
Locke: I wanted to originally be an actor, but I decided to do architecture because I loved technology and computers. I also took a CAD course in high school which introduced me to 3D software. I did the ACE (Architecture Construction Engineering) mentoring program and did a couple of internships in high school. I really liked the craft of making things with my hands. That kind of pushed my mind and energy towards doing architecture. I was a little afraid cause I wasn't great at math. And then I learned that it's not a lot of math at all; it's more applied as you need it. I was concerned about not being a great artist or great hand drawer. But then, I learned that wasn't necessary either because in school the use of technologies to help me draw was far more important.
Zekos: Do you have any particular memories that you could reflect on from your time as an architecture major at UMass that helped to shape who you are today?
Locke: I think the biggest thing that stands out for me was when I studied abroad. At UMass, I was only the second student from the entire university to go to school in the United Arab Emirates. I think the trip to the American University of Sharjah, which is just next to Dubai, really opened up my views to the Middle East and some of the spatial and economic challenges that exist in the UAE, but also, as it compares to some of the many issues faced by migrants and refugees who have found a home in the US. A large wealth gap exists in these countries, some of which is fueled by classism, some of which is fueled by racism. Seeing that kind of contrast in a different culture and a different space was an interesting juxtaposition. The exuberant, secular, wealthy, Vegas-like lifestyle, put into the backdrop of the historically conservative Middle East was a complex dynamic to experience. On one hand, the growth of cities like Dubai was incredible to witness, however it was difficult to ignore the economic disparities of many migrant workers who worked in an environment that at times resented their presence. It was important to witness how urban environments are not defined by money, but by the collaborative participation of people from different socioeconomic backgrounds. The school had students from all over the Middle East and parts of Europe and Africa. And also, the school was ahead of where UMass was at the time, in terms of how they used technology. So, when I came back to UMass, in some ways I was ahead of the people I was in class with. Even though I was gone for a year, and even though I was actually in a studio that was technically behind where I would have been at UMass, it still gave me a perspective of some of the more forward-thinking things in architecture and how they were being used, the technology of using KUKA robots to construct objects and materials, 3D printing, and the exposure to Islamic architecture.
Zekos: Following UMass, you went to the University of Michigan, Taubman School of Architecture and graduated with a Master’s of Architecture degree in 2017. Was the lack of respect you felt in your professional experience something you also felt in your educational experience? Is that what compelled you to start Designing in Color with Opalia Meade?
Locke: Yeah. You know, after going through my thesis, it just was a difficult time. At Michigan, all the professors and thesis instructors were white. Going through that experience and having ideas about politics and architecture, Black space, and all these things, and not being able to fulfill that in my work as a student in the last semester for something you pay so much money for was truly devastating. They say, “Hey, I'm not interested in the politics of space. Can you make that more minor?” And when that happens, you’re kind of just like, wow, how does this academic space work for me? I had a partner who was white and she didn't quite understand these kinds of topics either. And it made the semester very difficult. The project turned out interesting, but you could see that it wasn't directed as much as it should have been. The thesis review was also a strange experience for me because defending your ideas about identity and politics and not being engaged by your audience in a meaningful way was also something that I had to deal with.
So, after going through those experiences, I met with a few people and said, let's start this thing, Designing in Color. The whole point was to create a one-off workshop to talk about our issues at school and to network and to look for jobs. We all flew out to Los Angeles for the workshop. It was me, Rubin, Opalia, and one of our other comrades at the time, Ramon (who is my current roommate). We wanted to essentially create an organization that would be a platform for student voices to speak up and start to change how we're teaching because academia based in whiteness is only perpetuating white supremacy and that only that white is right. We wanted to allow students to use their multi-cultural identities in their work and to put that at the forefront. And we thought that, by pushing those things forward and allowing everyone to converse and have these discussions, that it would be very helpful.
Zekos: I read an article you wrote for the University of Michigan, where you stated that the prevalence of white spaces is a suffocating phenomenon. As a white person, I can try to empathize with that notion, but I haven't experienced it. So, I'm wondering if you could talk more about that.
Locke: I think the comment speaks to my situations at both UMass and Taubman. The prevalence of white people, of whiteness in space being suffocating really speaks to being one of only a few Black people that had been admitted to a university. So being in a school like that, if you want to be yourself, if you want to speak up, that means that you are immediately pushing against the grain. At every moment you have to consider, how am I going to be perceived? So, the idea of double-consciousness by W.E.B. DuBois, when broken down is: I have to be conscious about how you're going to view me because I don't want to be viewed in a negative light by you. But I also have to be conscious of who I am and uplift the culture and the beliefs that I have as a Black person. Black people are constantly having to think about all these things and make all these things viable in the world just to survive. So it’s like, I don't want to speak up and be the angry Black person, and I have to carry all these burdens all the time. You have to fight for something. You have to fight for yourself, but you also have to fight for the next person who's behind you. There are all these constant battles in front of you, and it becomes this very suffocating feeling. Not being able to just be you, and just be celebrated as you (which a white person doesn't have to worry about in the school of architecture), is a completely different experience.
Zekos: You talked about how DCo started off being a platform for student voices wanting to change academia. How has your mission expanded?
Locke: As we became professionals, we just became more aware of some of the challenges in the profession. So, as we started to do workshops and lectures at universities, and then experienced some of the racial injustices in the workplace, we wanted to not just change the way the profession is taught, but also the way we practice, and how the practice is experienced by communities. What an architect is and can do, shouldn't be commodified or defined by a white patriarchy. How do you unbuild racism? We base our platform on that. For us, it's sharing this message about how do we practice being anti-racist in architecture design? And how do we ultimately empower communities and individuals who aren't in architecture—people who are in town halls and community meetings, and trying to fight for their rights and their communities to preserve them—how do they get the language and the tools that are needed to ultimately organize and fend for themselves? How do we learn from them and be better designers?
And, I think that way of thinking had been much more fulfilling, but also more far-reaching because our ultimate vision and goal is to have a practice that is not just based on doing architectural buildings and designs, but we're also able to be problem-solvers and organize with a more multidisciplinary purpose. Can we build economic wealth in communities? Can we also be involved in politics? Can we do a film? These are the kinds of things that we see ourselves doing, rather than just being labeled as an architect who does a building. I think the way “architect” is usually defined in media is as the person who designed and created something. We almost want to demystify that and break it down it as “to architect” means to organize and collect thoughts that can ultimately be changed and guided and advocated for and with a community to create more impactful and long-lasting change. The architect for us, is not the image of Rem Koolhaus, BIG, or even David Adjaye on the cover of a magazine and smiling and saying, “This is my building.”
Architecture has been fetishized as an art, as one person’s vision. And then, when a majority of those people have been men, and specifically white men, it perpetuates an idea that the star architect is the person who's responsible. This creates a belief that we can only venerate those heroes and that we cannot venerate and respect people who are less known in the process and who sometimes contribute far more. And that's part of the narrative that we think is important, and it has to be done in practice, has to be done in academia.
Zekos: Besides DCo, what are you doing professionally?
Locke: I work with Eagan, Simon Architecture. They mostly do affordable housing, some market-rate housing, some office design for non-profits, and shelters or short-term housing. It’s a small office, 10 to 12 people. I decided to work there after leaving ZGF. ZGF was kind of a similar experience to what I experienced in school. Being in a mostly white-dominated space, you just aren't allowed to flourish as easily, and being in a corporate environment makes it much more difficult because the acceptance of Blackness or views on Blackness in architecture are just not prevalent. Being ridiculed and being subject to the questioning of my values as a hard-working, young Black designer is something I had to deal with. There weren't people who always supported what I wanted to do. So, it wasn't a healthy environment for me.
Besides Designing in Color, I do creative projects with film, I love to travel and garden, and all that stuff, but, DCo takes most of my time. I am also involved in NOMA. The SoCal NOMA chapter has gotten a really strong the last two years. And, it's been led by a really awesome group of people who are fantastic and passionate, hardworking. So, it's been great to be a part of that group. The mentoring experience for the summer camp has been a great experience for many of the Black and Brown students in the LA area. One of the students actually got a chance to do the summer program at UMass.
Zekos: Are there other educators, organizations, firms, and practices that you look to for inspiration and affinity?
Locke: One organization that stands out is Colloqate and what Brian C. Lee Jr. is doing in New Orleans. I also think of Deanna Van Buren and Designing Justice + Designing Spaces (DJDS) in Oakland and what she's doing to dismantle racism in the mass incarceration system of modern-day slavery. There are many more, including some work being done internationally with MASS Design Group and Kounkuey Design Initiative (KDI), which is mostly here on the west coast and in Kenya.
When we look at these firms, we respect what they do and how. It’s the process that we focus on and less so, the image of what they produce. And, you know, I think I speak maybe a little bit for the group and mostly for myself at this point, I care more about the process and how fulfilling it is than the building. Being in practice, I don't find designing buildings just to make money fun. It doesn't bring me joy unless it's really centered in the process that is fulfilling for everyone involved.
Zekos: So, given that vision, what positive effects of your work have you seen, where have you started to make a difference?
Locke: In my office, there is an intern who started recently and I recognized him immediately, even though he had a mask on. And it turns out to be one of the participants in our Cal Poly workshop almost two years ago. He recognized me and said that he and his friends still remember that experience. I think one of the things that have been fulfilling for us in our work is seeing our clients being engaged and motivated to continue doing it.
More recently we had two workshops with Steinberg Hart a firm in San Jose and LA with about 150 people. At the first workshop, we talked about the issue of defensible spaces and why it's a negative thing. And they immediately, in the competition they were working on, looked into removing its presence. That was an immediate reaction to how they were working and making decisions. Just to see somebody grab on to information and immediately put it into action, kind of proved to us that, hey, we're doing the right thing. Those small occurrences where you start to see the change happen are great because I think one of the big challenges that we have is: how do we measure our success?
Zekos: We’ve talked very briefly about some big ideas, double consciousness, defensible spaces, and colonization in architecture. Is there anything that you'd like to spend a little bit more time on?
Locke: I think one of the biggest things that, as an organization, we're going to look forward to exploring is how architects can help to build economic wealth in communities, and how to continue to equip those around you to protest design and to build that into design justice practices. Because we think that if firms really want to be relevant in the next five to 10, 15 years, they have to be well-equipped to have these discussions and well equipped to put these methods into the process, projects, and contracts because if they don't, they will fall behind and they will not be able to perceive their work and their value, the same as other firms do.
I think the most important part is how do you ultimately prioritize design justice in a practice that has historically benefited from doing the complete opposite. This is an important assessment that all designers must understand from school to practice. This process takes time but we can and have to do better, together.