Divine Design

Detroit architect and priest Terrence Curry helps inner-city people rebuild their own communities

| March / April 2003

IN 1968 National Urban League director Whitney M. Young Jr. gave a tongue-lashing to members of the American Institute of Architects. Speaking at their 100th annual convention, he took the designers to task for contributing to segregation, redlining, and concentrated urban poverty. ?You are not a profession that has distinguished itself by your social and civic contributions to the cause of civil rights,? he said. ?You share the responsibility for the mess we are in.?

As a direct result, several organizations sprouted to help impoverished inner-city neighborhoods. The community design movement was born?a grassroots, neighborhood approach to urban planning that brings the users of buildings into the process of designing them.

?That was back when I was, like, 3,? says Terrence Curry, one of the leading lights of community design today. After languishing in the get-rich decade of the ?80s, the movement has experienced a slow resurgence and now is poised for a major comeback. Curry, an architect and Jesuit priest, founded the Detroit Collaborative Design Center on the campus of the Jesuit-run University of Detroit Mercy in 1995. It?s a model for the new form of community design.

Curry couldn?t have picked a better city. While most large American cities suffer problems, Detroit has been all but crushed by them. Crime, poverty, and homelessness are endemic. Declining population and a steady atrophy of industry and jobs have left its urban core in ruins. The Design Collaborative, with the help of students, community leaders, and rank-and-file citizens, is in the business of rebuilding. And they?re not building big public housing projects?or trendy suburban-style ?in-fill? townhomes. Their projects have ranged from an apartment building for homeless men to a 40,000-square-foot community service center housing a thrift store, a child care center, a clinic, employment services, and a food shelf.

But don?t judge his work by its outcome, Curry insists. The truly radical concept behind community design is how it gets done. ?I do beautiful design work,? he says, ?but for me what is most important is the process.? Curry and other architects in the movement don?t work for a client in the traditional sense. Instead, the community itself is their client. The apartment project in Detroit, for instance, was initiated by a group of homeless activists who sought help in untangling a maze of City Hall code specifications and site requirements. Over the course of five years, Curry?s organization helped the activists develop their organization and clarify their proposal, then gain design and site approval from city officials. The Design Collaborative hooked them up with a local developer and helped find tax credits to ease the financial burden of the project.

?What we?re trying to do is establish a sense of ownership and identity with a place,? Curry explains. ?To have an impact on the built world is something most people don?t get a chance to do. It gives them an ontological power?a basic sense of being. They become a co-creator with God. That?s power.?

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