Ming Thompson ’04 and the Design Brigade work with New Haven Residents to design solutions to COVID-19-related issues
This summer, New Haven architect Ming Thompson ’04 worked with interns in a program called “The Design Brigade,” which highlighted the nuanced pandemic-related experiences of the New Haven community.
This year, due to the pandemic, instead of hiring interns to work directly in her office, Thompson worked with Director of Yale’s Center for Collaborative Arts and Media Dana Karwas to plan the inaugural Design Brigade. The internship program lasted 10 weeks beginning in June 2020 and involved three interdisciplinary teams of 21 undergraduate and graduate students whose goal was to build solutions to COVID-19-based problems. The interns worked to design community-based solutions with and for New Haven residents.
“There is a difference between designing with and designing for,” said Hana Davis ARCH ’20, one of this past summer’s interns and former Weekend editor for the News. “[We learned] how to approach a conversation with someone who has different experiences than you especially when you represent a place like Yale in a city like New Haven.”
The three design teams took on varied projects. The “On Memory” team worked with the Department of Cultural Affairs of New Haven to design a guidebook that served as a memorial for those impacted by COVID-19 in New Haven; the “On Family” team worked with the Towers, an assisted living facility, to design an narrative-based exercise trail to allow residents to participate in outdoor activities and engage in storytelling; the “On Learning” team created a guidebook for cultural institutions in the broader New Haven community like NXTHVN and the Yale University Art Gallery to plan sustainable art-related programming.
Although each team received a basic design brief, the specific problem they sought to solve and its corresponding solution were left up to the students.
“We really wanted students to not only work to solve a problem, but to really frame the problem and question [around] the question we had given them,” said Thompson.
To better understand and determine the problems each team wanted to solve, students reached out to the New Haven community.
Students’ varying backgrounds allowed them to tackle parts of the projects that encompassed several fields of study. Although the Design Brigade involved architecture, teams included students from a variety of other majors, including art, music and psychology. Each student worked on all parts of the project — not only the parts in which they had expertise.
“[We’re] not interested in monolithic conversations that are nested in one discipline or another,” said Justin Berry, critic at the Yale School of Art and advisor to the “On Memory” and “On Learning” teams.
“On Memory”: Engaging the community
The “On Memory” team reached out to around 100 individuals and organizations — including Long Wharf Theater and One Village Healing — during the course of the internship, according to Ye Quin Zhu ART ’20. Students asked questions about what types of spaces residents would want in their neighborhood in light of the pandemic.
With the killing of George Floyd occurring near the beginning of the program, the “On Memory” team decided they wanted to acknowledge racial injustice in their COVID-19 project.
“It was the natural trajectory of having a COVID-19 memorial, because of how disproportionately impacted Black and brown communities were and continue to be by the pandemic,” said Davis.
The interns set up a table at the Juneteenth March and Teach In on the New Haven Green, where they asked visitors about what they would want in a memorial to recognize racial injustice.
Based on this community outreach, the “On Memory” team created a guidebook that illustrated common trends and wants of the New Haven community. Using this research, the team suggested an art park on remediated wasteland, in which local New Haven artists could showcase their work. Thompson said that the suggestions made by the team are being implemented by a resident-based task force appointed by the City of New Haven.
“On Learning”: A long-term, grassroots project
In a similar vein to the “On Memory” team, the “On Learning” team created a guidebook for art-related event planning to cater to the diverse needs of the New Haven community during the pandemic. Robert Skoronski ’21, a member of the “On Learning” team, said that the guidebook opted against the top-down approach typically employed by firms and focused on grass-roots organization. According to Skoronski and Jessica Jie Zhou ARCH ’22, much of their own work in this project involved gathering input from the community — which they felt was unique to the Design Brigade when compared to other architecture internships.
Anjiang Xu ARCH ’22 — a member of the “On Learning” team — said that an architect functions as somewhat of an outsider: they have to learn about communities’ desires, communication styles and preferences. Xu said that such outreach links community and architecture in an “interconnected play with formal [elements]” to allow architects to create something that people would actually care about.
Terence Washington, the program director of NXTHVN — a Dixwell-based community arts and education space — and a client of the “On Learning” team, hopes to use some of the projects described in the guidebook to help NXTHVN become further integrated within the Dixwell community. Washington also said the early pages of the guidebook that transcribe the thought process involved in the projects’ design “will be useful forever,” especially for teaching the “iterative” process of design to their high school apprentices.
NXTHVN’s planned implementation of the guidebook aligns with what Xu hoped it would be used for: a “basic methodology” that clients can use to create projects in a better way than what the guidebook proposes.
Skoronski said he sees people who are just beginning inward-facing communications roles at Yale-affiliated organizations like the Beinecke Library as ideal consumers of the guidebook. He said that the community-centered approach outlined in the guidebook could help both Yale and non-Yale affiliated parties gain a more accessible view into such organizations’ collections.
“On Family”: A narrative trail
Phase one of the “On Family” team’s project predominantly featured “sight” research, where residents of The Towers were given surveys to complete indicating their living preferences based on the pandemic’s constraints. The team sent out 300 surveys and received 80 responses.
Janelle Schmidt ARCH ’22, a member of the “On Family” team, said that this community feedback is especially important in order for architects to “use [their] design principles to give [the client] what they want,” instead of “having the client design the thing for you.”
According to Schmidt, the primary request they received was for the team to create another way for the residents to be active. This resulted in the idea for a “narrative trail” within The Towers that would have dual functions: the trail itself would have signage depicting the history of New Haven and the Towers to allow for residents to “mindfully reflect on the history of their environment” as well as markers indicating distance so that residents could “safely exercise.”
The students proposed for the trail to be built in December of this year.
Berry said that it’s “funny to think of this in terms of outcomes” because the kind of field research the interns were doing goes beyond the scope of the projects themselves due to the delicate, personal nature of COVID-related issues.
Thompson expressed a similar sentiment when saying that the Design Brigade differed from past internships at her architecture firm, as it required students to think conceptually about community-level problems rather than building a concrete solution.
“It really did influence the way I am going to think about our practice going forward in terms of what community engagement looks like and how we can design not just for people, but with people,” said Thompson. “It was a great thing for the projects and a great thing for students to have [a] speculative component of the work and I hope we can bring that to internships in the future.”
Thompson said she enjoyed her experience with the Design Brigade but is not sure if the Design Brigade will take place next summer due to pandemic’s unpredictable nature.
Thompson works for the firm Atelier Cho Thompson.
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