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You May Inquire: Our Civic Responsibility

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Recent months have been a struggle for those who envision cities as centers of justice and civic virtue. With the raw emotions elicited by the shootings of unarmed men, wide ranging protests, and unprovoked attacks against police officers, it is hard to see how an architect and planner could initiate a conversation between balanced justice and creative inquiry, and consider the ways design might serve justice. But I will give it a try.

A Profession in Design

When I was 17, I expressed an interest in two careers: designing rocket ships and becoming an architect. This was a couple of years after “Star Wars,” a sunburst of creativity that evoked legends, the future, and the power of good over evil. My guidance counselor didn’t really know what to do with that and after convincing me that the field of rocket ship design was not expanding, she half-heartedly suggested some architecture schools. My understanding of architecture was limited to my mechanical drawing class and watching my father build a two-bedroom addition over our garage.

Upon hearing that I wanted to be an architect, my father, as any good parent would do, took an active interest. We drove to New York City and visited the Guggenheim Museum. My sense was that he was more curious about its shape – he was a civil engineer – than about Frank Lloyd Wright’s design philosophy. Afterwards, he drove me to Pratt, one of the schools I was applying to. As a suburban white teenager, I knew nothing about cities and driving around an urban campus did not spark any interest. I never got out of the car and immediately decided that Brooklyn was not for me.

During those months in 1979 someone put an article in front of me about the psychological impact of architecture. I only remember one thing from the article – an architect stating that he could design a space that would completely alter the relationship of a happily married couple, leading to divorce. The only reason I remember this is because it came up at my interview at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, my eventual alma mater. A young woman interviewed me and asked the obvious question, “Why do you want to become an architect?” As a B+ student applying to a top-ranked school, I didn’t have a whole lot to set me apart from other high school seniors, so I threw a Hail Mary pass and told her about the article and conveyed my impression that if architecture could change people’s relationships, well, that seemed pretty cool.

A Call to Duty

Last year, I participated in something that reminded me of my visit to Pratt, the article, and what architecture revealed to me during my studies. I was called for jury duty at the Brooklyn Supreme and Family Courthouse, a building designed by Perkins Eastman Architects in 2005. Naturally, my first response to the white envelope with the summons in our mailbox was not enthusiastic. My work would be interrupted and I’d have to spend time dealing with grumpy bureaucrats; the only silver lining was catching up on my reading. I assured my staff that I’d probably only miss a couple of days.

Each morning I had to go through security, dropping my bag onto the scanner belt and walking through the portal under the watchful eyes of a court officer before heading upstairs to wait with other bored respondents. As the process sluggishly moved forward, delayed by those who couldn’t be bothered to arrive on time or kept walking into the wrong courtroom, my cohort reduced in size and we moved into the interview phase.

Then things started to get interesting. Glimpses were afforded into private lives as each of us answered survey questions publicly. These questions centered on education, home living situations, work, and previous experiences with law enforcement and the fire department. I was moved by my peers’ quiet replies, a tableau of our civitas and its collective challenges: failed marriages, lost jobs, and college degrees left unfinished. They gave voice to the struggles of a Brooklyn community in the wake of an economic meltdown.

One of my answers led to a follow up one-on-one interview with the judge because of something that happened in my family many years ago. It was a cathartic moment and I began to notice something that I had not expected: I wanted to be on the jury. Struggling to understand my situation was not the challenge – it was about speaking the truth with strangers. There are not many instances where someone can do this in public life without feeling either ostracized or pitied. It connected to me to the other people in the room: the judge, the defendant, the attorneys, the court officers, and my peers. I wanted to continue and learn more about our collective experiences with the hope that the trial would fairly reflect our shared experiences and values. A day later I was selected as Juror #10.

Seeking the Truth

Each day, as I arrived on the 19th Floor, friendly court officers greeted me. From their post, there was a view down a high-ceilinged granite corridor to a window facing the Manhattan Bridge. The courtroom had swivel chairs in the jury box and blond wood paneling. The jury deliberation room at the southeast corner of the building overlooked downtown Brooklyn and the harbor. The corridor between our room and the courtroom was along the building perimeter, affording us panoramic views of the borough. Some of my fellow jurors with previous jury experience commented on how they had deliberated before in rooms without windows, stuck deep in a building interior. I liked our temporary digs and marveled at the design inspiration that assured that jurors could look out over their city while deliberating a fellow citizen’s fate.

We were an interesting group that included a young man whose mother had to wake him up every morning so he would arrive on time, a school worker whose nickname was “Thug Ma,” an investment advisor, a school custodian, a software designer, and a conscientious computer specialist. Culturally diverse, with an even distribution of race and gender, it was one of the most interesting groups that I had ever been part of – I wanted to know more about each person. During sidebars and bench conferences, we returned to our daylit room where we played cards, told jokes, tried to convince the court officers to grab a beer after the trial, and caught up on emails, all while carefully avoiding conversation about the testimony.

The presiding judge, the Honorable Ruth Shillingford, was remarkable. Her discipline was impressive; she treated us with respect, and made sure that the defendant understood his rights. And at the end of the trial she visited us in the deliberation room to thank us for our service and see if we had any questions. During the trial, when it had been time for either the prosecution or defense team to start questioning a witness, she instructed them, “You may inquire.” This directive’s purpose was deceptively simple, but to me, and I suspect to Judge Shillingford too, those three words summed up a deeper truth about how we could engage with society’s evolving struggle towards a moral and just world.

A Life’s Work

After the jury rendered its decision and we departed shaking hands, with little chance of seeing each other again, I reflected on my experience and its connection to the urban condition. One of my inspirations to study architecture – mechanical drawing classes – was an expression of a fundamental truth in design: the essence of the ideal lies in the abstract, and the designer’s work is to make it real. Likewise, with jury duty, a fair and just decision cannot be reached if we fail to first seek the truth. Inquiry saves us. It is part of all civic processes, and as designers, whose work impacts the culture around us, we must ask hard questions that may initially seem abstract, but can lead to a more fully realized solution. Looking out across the city as the jury sifted through evidence that would determine a young man’s fate, I realized that we have a duty to consider the larger truths of civic responsibility as a backdrop to our inquiry. And I understood that designers are charged with the same task.

Many questions are being asked about recent events here and elsewhere, and my profession should engage them. Too many of the public discussions about design are about blown budgets or creativity run amok. Of course architects and planners alone cannot solve the issues of race, education, and the delicate balance between justice and civil order. But as we continue to build and rebuild our city, we are obligated to inquire about the nature of the urban condition and its rich diversity. This will not be easy as our city becomes more complex culturally and politically, and continues to expand upwards. Without inquiry, we risk failure and our vital role as designers of a better civic experience will be diminished.

posted by David Briggs