Students: Black Mold (Part 2)



Harvard Graduate School of Design (USA) / Instructor: Iñaki Abalos (2016)

The city of Richmond, California has two histories. There is the more popular one that focuses on the city’s heroic efforts during WWII, highlighting Liberty Ships, extensive railroads, and exponential population growth. It glosses over the divestment of capital and resources that ensued in the following decades, fast-forwarding instead to the crime and drug-related violence that haunted the city in the 1990’s. The other, more nuanced, history describes the incredible social capital built within the city’s largely African American community in the face of institutionalized racism. It clearly correlates key infrastructural developments, such as the insertion of an 8-lane freeway through the middle of the city or the failure to properly maintain the city’s public housing stock, to heightened unemployment and increased barriers to success. The two histories converged in 2007 when the city was thrust into the national spotlight after witnessing 47 homicides, one of the deadliest years on record. Shortly thereafter, the Office of Neighborhood Safety (ONS) was created through a collaborative effort between community members and local government. The program, along with other citywide efforts, has proven largely successful with homicide rates now at a record low. However, the decreased crime within the city combined with the skyrocketing rents seen throughout the greater Bay Area place Richmond residents in a very precarious position in terms of future infrastructural development.

We have clear examples in Richmond of how architecture can hurt. What we need is to identify ways through which architecture can further the healing that the community has already begun. Though quite different in its actualization, the ONS model bears similarities to that presented by James Kelling and George Wilson in their “Broken Windows” theory originally published in the Atlantic in 1982. While certain aspects of Broken Windows have been heavily criticized due to what the authors have called “poor policing”, there is still much to be gained from the idea of preemptive action. In fact, both the ONS and Broken Windows models  aim to deter larger crimes from occurring through negative reinforcement of the smallest offenses and through changing the mindsets of the individuals most likely to be involved. The same model can be applied to the ways through which architecture is developed.

This thesis asserts that mold is the “broken window” of architecture. Leaving other critiques of the Broken Windows theory aside, what this means is that a design against mold represents one way through which architects and designers may begin to act in advance of failing systems. Mold may appear to be the pettiest of offenses but, if left unchecked, it can corrode a building’s structure beyond repair and pose a significant health threat to the occupants. This “mold” however, is not limited to the fungal organism; the patterns are repeated at multiple scales of the built environment. Instead, the “mold” exists on a spectrum, from the physical (at the scale of the unit) to the metaphorical (at the scale of the urban). It was this metaphorical “mold” that led city officials to continue to use hundreds of temporary war housing units far beyond their expiration dates. The same “mold” led to the strategic decision in 1976 to locate a new shopping center several miles away from the downtown area thereby causing major retailers to abandon the city’s core. In short, it is this metaphorical “mold” that suggests that the status quo is “good enough”, even when there is concrete evidence that it is not. This site-specific design proposes that at the scale of the unit one way to mitigate the growth and spread of physical mold and its spores is to position the kitchens and bathrooms—the programs that are most susceptible to mold growth—toward the exterior of the envelope. The design for the building scale centers primarily upon two simple truths: there is not enough affordable housing in the city and there are not nearly enough amenities, services, or employment opportunities.  The project is comprised of three different “housing plus” sites that all begin to work together to serve the city’s large minority population. At the urban scale, the design against “mold” is centered upon the creation of continuous bike and pedestrian paths throughout central Richmond, creating  a network of vacant or underused sites to be used by current community organizations within the city.

Richmond’s two histories represent that of the majority and that of the repressed.  Should they diverge once more, it will signal that we as designers have not managed to act preemptively, that we have not yet pushed the limits of our discipline far enough. There comes a point where we must ask ourselves, as we continue to equate the bare minimum to the absolute optimum, for whom are we designing?

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