Weitzman News

Posted October 14, 2022
  • Rendering of the "Possibilist Porch," a proposed addition at West Philadelphia High School

Public Schools as Equity Infrastructure: An Interdisciplinary Design Studio

In a recent article for CONTEXT: The Journal of AIA Philadelphia, Eduardo Rega Calvo describes a yearlong collaboration between Weitzman students and West Philadelphia High School students through Studio+. Among the latest Justice and Belonging Initiatives at Weitzman, this interdisciplinary initiative drew students from across the School. In this excerpt, Rega Calvo describes the pedagogical approach of the studio. 

In an on-line conversation held on May 27th, 2021, as part of the Strike MoMA Working Group, American activists and scholars Stefano Harney and Fred Moten discussed how universities and museums—as western gatekeepers of culture and knowledge—contribute to oppressive structures of power.(1)

Comparing these institutions to ‘shredding machines,’ Harney noted that they can turn cooperatively produced knowledge into individualized commodities. Considering this characterization, our interdisciplinary team of educators and students at the University of Pennsylvania, working alongside West Philadelphia community members and local youth, asked whether a design studio that originates within the university can carve a space, however small, for rehearsing a reversal of this condition. Can private institutions of higher education contribute to a sustained program of reparations to those who have been systematically marginalized, displaced, and dispossessed? What does a design studio at the Weitzman School of Design focused on education justice in Philadelphia look like, and how does it address, oppose, and reject the normalization of violence against its black, brown, and working-class neighbors? Can design studios interrupt, if only momentarily the reproduction of power dynamics that typically delivers knowledge, disciplinary expertise, and skills one-directionally from teacher to student?(2) And, can design studios refuse to reproduce the asymmetrical relations of a traditional corporate practice?

What follows are reflections on these questions via student work completed during a recent design studio titled Studio+, Public Schools as Equity Infrastructure, an advanced level interdisciplinary design studio held during spring 2022 and taught by architect Eduardo Rega Calvo, landscape architect Abdallah Tabet, and artist Ernel Martinez. The studio was part of a larger community-engagement and interdisciplinary design initiative organized by PennPraxis, the center for applied research, outreach, and practice at the Weitzman School whose mission includes bringing together civic organizations, faculty, and students from all departments at the School of Design—Fine Arts (FNAR), Architecture (ARCH), City and Regional Planning (CPLN), Historic Preservation (HSPV), and Landscape Architecture (LARP).(3)

Course offerings, summer building and education programs for community youth, and work-study opportunities for Penn students are all part of PennPraxis initiatives. The spring 2022 interdisciplinary design studio was inspired by and based on ongoing research conducted by Weitzman Assistant Professor of City & Regional Planning Akira Drake Rodriguez, whose course Planning Public Schools as Infrastructure (Fall 2021) introduced students to local organizations such as the Our City Our Schools (OCOS) Coalition, the Philadelphia Student Union, the Philadelphia Home and School Council (PHSC), and others, to develop planning recommendations and frameworks for the creation of a “Philadelphia Public Schools People’s Facilities Master Plan” (www.phillyschoolsplan.space/).

Using the Peoples Movement Assembly Organizing Handbook developed by labor activist Ruben Garcia as inspiration for the studio’s methods, Studio+, Public Schools as Equity Infrastructure created a space to speculate, design, and rehearse a self-organized interdisciplinary agency and cooperative practice model for introducing the values of design justice in real-world design-build projects. (4) Studio+ was at once a critical form of spatial practice, a vehicle for students, faculty, and outside collaborators to collectively imagine more equitable worlds, and a means for operating concretely and immediately while acknowledging the contradictions of working from within institutions adjacent to West Philadelphia’s disenfranchised population. The studio allied itself with diverse community organizers, teachers, and local youth to advance spatially determined social justice projects, inclusive of the large scale of systems, institutions, and infrastructures, of the neighborhood, and of built furniture and urban artifacts of use in and out of school buildings. Material implementation of Studio+ design projects took place during late spring and summer 2022, led by interested students hired and supported through PennPraxis’s Design Fellows program.

The studio rehearsed an alternative design practice inspired by and reflective of egalitarian values and cooperative principles held by grassroots organizations and social justice movements. It asked how we might embody the cooperative principles of social justice in our own practice as designers? How might we incorporate diverse backgrounds, disciplines, skills, struggles, and motivations for justice into the way we design and build together? The hope was that this search for answers would result in more thoughtful, multifaceted, complex, and relevant outcomes.

Seeking to meaningfully contribute to a collective project for justice, the studio prioritized standing in solidarity and establishing connections with social organizations within and beyond UPenn’s campus. These included grassroots initiatives and counter-institutions that have historically fought for justice and practiced equitable and collective world-building processes, including the North Philadelphia and West Philly Peace Parks, the West Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, the New Africa Center, Youth United for Change, the Penn for PILOTS petition, and the Philadelphia Rent Control Coalition.(5) These movements for justice inspired our political outlook and helped conceptualize our design strategies.

Continue reading Rega Calvo's article.

1) “A Conversation with Sandy Grande, Stefano Harney, Fred Moten, Jasbir Puar, and Dylan Rodriguez,” May 27, 2021 (1:47:15). Strike MoMA Working Group of IIAAF. 2:09:39. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V2vzhwn-jy4s. See also Fred Moten and Stefano Harney, The Undercommons: fugitive planning & black study (Minor Compositions, 2013).

2) Paolo Freire, Pedagogy of the oppressed. (New York: Herder and Herder, 1972).

3) PennPraxis (www.design.upenn.edu/pennpraxis/) is led by Ellen Neises (Professor of Practice in Landscape Architecture and Lori Kanter Tritsch Executive Director) and Dyan Castro (Coordinator of the Studio+ initiative).

4) Ruben Garcia, Seth Markle, Foluke Nunn, Emery Wright, and Stephanie Guillord, Peoples Movement Assembly Organizing Handbook (2016), https://mutualaiddisasterrelief.org/wp content/uploads/2020/05/PMA-Handbook.pdf

5) See the following websites, https://www.phillypeacepark.org/, https://www.paulrobesonhouse.org/westphiladelphiaculturalalliance/, http://www.newafricacenter.com/, https://www.youthunitedforchange.org/, https://www.pennforpilots.org/, https://rentcontrolphilly.org/