Divine Design

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

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.?

Fresh from a fellowship at Harvard, where he studied conflict
resolution, Curry is currently taking a sojourn as artist in
residence at Fordham University, another Jesuit institution. But
he?s anxious to get started on his next projects?a national center
for community design and a wood shop for inner-city kids where he
can ?engage them one-on-one with creation.? He?s hopeful that the
community design movement is catching on, and that a national
center can help galvanize it. For one thing, the up-and-coming
generation of architecture students at universities like Detroit
Mercy are demanding a more meaningful education. For another, the
professional community seems to be taking notice of his work.
Before he left Detroit for Harvard, he won the American Institute
of Architects? prestigious National Young Architect award, and his
Detroit Design Collaborative has won accolades too.

?I?m not saying ?change architecture and it?ll change the
world,? but it does have a huge effect,? he says. ?Our world could
use a few more places that make people feel comfortable, places
that promote a feeling of community.?

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