Q&A: Jerilou Hammett
About a new book that demonstrates how change happens
DESIGNER/builder magazine was the quintessential small, independent magazine. Resolutely un-glossy, it was reproduced in black and white, and devoted to community and social design long before those twinned pursuits became fashionable in the architecture and design world. The magazine, founded and edited by the late Kingsley Hammett, ceased publication in 2008, but Jerilou Hammett and Maggie Wrigley have now put together a kind of greatest hits compilation entitled The Architecture of Change: Building a Better World (University of New Mexico Press). The book includes a Forward by Michael Sorkin and features 36 stories that serve as a tribute to the design movement the magazine helped foster. Recently I corresponded with Hammett via email about the new book, the lessons it imparts on a new generation of citizen designers, and her hopes for the future.
Martin C. Pedersen: How did the book evolve? Why do it now?
Jerilou Hammett: During Barack Obama’s first run for the presidency, he made “change” the central theme of his campaign. Kingsley and I were struck by the passionate reaction to this message. But we knew that beyond the slogan there was very little understanding of what “change” really meant, and how to achieve it. Thinking back over the work we had done in DESIGNER/builder magazine for almost 15 years, we began remembering all of the stories we’d written about ordinary people and sensitive professionals who had found ingenious solutions to the problems confronting them. We thought a book that demonstrated how change happens—about people who refused to accept that things couldn’t change, who saw the possibility of making something better and didn’t hesitate—would be valuable.
MCP: What would you like your readers to learn from the book?
JH: Many people today are looking for ways to be needed, to work toward a more equitable society, to be part of a community. They just don’t know how. Many are students, sitting in their classrooms receiving a traditional education, who don’t have a clue as to how to take their new skills and knowledge and apply them to help create a more just society. Many are professionals, who are searching for ways to find meaning in their work and make a broader contribution. We want this book to open their eyes to new ways of interpreting the world and envisioning change in a caring society.
MCP: The book is very much a tribute to Kingsley Hammett, the editor and founder of DESIGNER/builder magazine. What was his vision for the magazine?
JH: Kingsley’s original vision for DESIGNER/builder was an independent and non-traditional magazine that would demonstrate the power of the human spirit to transform the built environment. He believed that a better world was possible and had great faith in what people could do for each other, what they could create and build, how they could transform misery into hope. He wanted to share their experiences. He believed that every story was a human story.
As the years went on, the vision evolved and DESIGNER/builder grew more into its subtitle, A Journal of the Human Environment. We took on innovative housing, neighborhood reclamation, community empowerment, racism, aging, corporate control, homelessness, gentrification, displacement, and the power of social networks. We looked at the urban forms of Pyong Yang, the uniqueness of the buildings of Yemen, the process of rebuilding in Cuba, the politics of architecture on the West Bank. We exposed the emptiness of all the buzzwords being used to sell the latest projects. We included examples of people who were challenging current thinking not only in words, but in actions. We covered people in poor, marginalized communities who became agents of transformation by using social capital. We demonstrated how professionals, individuals, and groups could contribute to societal change irrespective of their economic status and political power. Running through the magazine was a constant theme of social justice as an underlying principle of the built environment.
MCP: You reference Rudofsky’s Architecture Without Architects. This book is in that same spirit. Many of these projects and stories are examples where the architects stepped aside and let the community take the lead. How do you inspire architects and designers to do that, to willingly cede authority?
JH: None of the stories in the book reference architects who made a conscious choice to step aside. Those who were involved in these collaborations had come to the decision to be a participant rather than a leader. They understood that they had as much to learn as to teach. What we want architects and designers to draw from this book is the evidence of what serves the people. These are the interventions that, as Rudofsky knew, come from the power of communal architecture—architecture produced not by specialists but by people drawing on their common lives and experiences. They’re the ones with the unique insight into their particular needs and environments. It is only when working side-by-side with those who will benefit in the end is it possible to bring about the necessary change.
This is a huge paradigm shift, which most architects and designers never make. It is counter-intuitive to traditional architectural education where the project that gets showcased is far more important than the one that helps an underserved community. The architects and designers who will be inspired by this book are the ones already predisposed to see the use of their training and talents in a new light. They’re the ones who believe that a better world for everyone is possible. They’re the ones who will come to understand the many rewards that await them besides wealth and status. There is much reason for optimism in this.
MCP: The social design movement has exploded in the last five years. But in many ways, the culture is just now catching up with the ethos of DESIGNER/builder, which had been working in that space long before it was fashionable. Talk about what it was like in the 1990s and early 2000s to be on your own (maybe with the exception of Metropolis) covering these stories when the rest of the design press was chasing the latest museum project?
JH: DESIGNER/builder magazine was a fascinating journey. Being small, independent, and bootstrap from beginning to end, we had the freedom to take the magazine in unexplored directions. We wanted to offer an alternative voice in the field by adding social justice (which we had grown up with in the 60s) to the debate over the built and human environments. We knew that architects knew how to design, and builders knew how to build, and planners knew how to plan, but what was missing was a sense of the human context in which they were operating.
As we began to look beyond the obvious, we came across people and stories that were full of unique voices and perspectives. One led to another and before we knew it we found ourselves in the middle of what one might call a social movement. We gathered together readers and contributors who shared a common vision and dream, articulated in ever-expanding, innovative terms and often to heights and scales, which the mainstream media would never have attempted to embrace. It was a very exciting time because the readers fed off the magazine and we fed off the reader and contributors. The eagerness to be a part of DESIGNER/builder’s network was inspiring. We certainly didn’t stand-alone. We had actually developed a sense of family.
MCP: Some of these stories are more than ten years old. Are you still in touch with some of these people? Are they still actively engaged in community building? Is there a new generation?
JH: As we compiled the book we were in close contact with the people in the stories. We’re still in touch with many of them. All remain committed to the work they were doing. Many interventions have grown in size and mission. Sometimes the leadership moved on, sometimes the structure changed, sometimes external pressures modified the original goals, sometimes as these projects grew the format and the money they had attracted changed basic relationships.
We were intent on capturing these stories at the very moment of inception, when the passion and vision were at their freshest. We were always aware of the overriding importance of whether the goal was a more beautiful city or a more beautiful life. Were they about the intervention itself or the life that the intervention framed?
There are people everywhere continuing this kind of work, on fascinating journeys with unexpected victories. They all offer us lessons, but we hear very little about them. Human decency and common sense, how we raise our children, treat our elders, house our homeless don’t sell media. It’s not what makes news.
Yet these actions speak eloquently and deserve our attention. People who look beyond the obvious and take on those challenges have great power and use it well. If our media were saturated with their stories, we would be aware of the wisdom, inspiration, and creativity of ordinary people. Hearing these unique voices would emphasize a caring society and give us hope that things can change. We’re living in critical times, with seemingly overwhelming problems. It’s vital that we encourage more individuals to become aware of their power and to use their talents to benefit the lives of others and the world around them.