Every other month, Adult Education Coordinator Houghton Kinsman highlights, records, and explores the various parts of Sacramento's creative economy he encounters in his job. This column's topic: gentrification and how creatives are tackling it. Do you have a question or comment for Houghton? Send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.
I’m back in the office! Oh, how I have missed my cavernous grey cubicle. No longer need I sit hunched over my miniscule laptop in a dark, gloomy apartment at a dining room table too small and ill-suited to ideation and my leaning stacks of paper. Now, I sit in pure, unadulterated comfort, swiveling back and forth between my three desks, bathed in a joyful, fluorescent light, all under the watchful gaze of my heavy-laden Gwathmey, Siegel and Associates bookshelf.
“Returning to work” this month is rather timely, as it marks the beginning of my second year at the Museum. I remember my first week vividly. It was chaotic; a helter-skelter, screeching, hit-the-ground-sprinting situation. Five adrenaline-laced days that culminated with my first program: a lecture by design scholar Simon Sadler on the Museum’s iconic Teel Family Pavilion.
Sadler’s talk was also my introduction to Experience Architecture, an annual event hosted by the American Institute of Architects, Central Valley chapter (AIACV). Sadler’s talk — a fascinating dissection of both the history of museum design and the Crocker’s new building — rounded off a week-long plethora of talks, activities, tours, and presentations that occurred throughout Sacramento. It was a nifty way to “capture” the City at a particular moment in time.
A year later, as we (quietly) celebrate the Pavilion’s 10th anniversary, Experience Architecture has returned. As the redevelopment of the downtown Sacramento core marches on, it feels appropriate to consider the role(s) AIACV plays in our city and how this annual event provides us diverse opportunities to engage with Sac Town as it undergoes significant alteration.
What is Experience Architecture?
AIACV is unique in Sacramento’s creative ecosystem: It’s a nexus, or meeting place of sorts, for local and regional professionals in the built environment industry. However, it's also the link between the industry and the wider public. Formed in 1947, as a chapter of the national American Institute of Architects (AIA), AIACV covers seventeen counties in Central California; it operates in various capacities to provide education, advocacy, and foster dialogue between professionals like architects and urban planners, as well as the City’s various communities. Current Executive Director Kimberley Anderson and Administrator Tinn Lee, occupy offices tucked away on the outskirts of Midtown and it’s from here that they conduct Experience Architecture — the chapter’s main outreach event.
2020 was the event’s ninth year; it was jam-packed with programs. The only difference this year was it all happened virtually, which meant I saved a bit on parking. The theme was "Resilience", with many of the programs addressing architecture’s response to coronavirus. Programs of note were local historian William Burg discussing the history of R Street, a talk on the future of restaurants in the 916 (appropriately titled “A Bite of Design”), a sneak peek at the new state building, The Clifford L. Allenby State Office Building on O Street, and the highlight: a presentation by the renowned firm MASS Design Group. If you missed it, don’t fear, you can view it all here.
Although there is an undeniable exhibition-like quality to Experience Architecture, it’s not really an “architecture biennale” like those of Chicago or Venice. Instead, it’s an approachable, participatory, city-wide festival. Anderson summed it up much more succinctly: “Experience Architecture celebrates architecture and design and provides opportunities for those both in, and outside, of the profession, to 'experience' architecture and the built environment...” What's most intriguing —both in the context of this column and the changing landscape of Sacramento — is how Experience Architecture responds to and traces the evolution of Sacramento and the region.
The Problem with Gentrification
Over the last decade, Downtown has changed drastically. Take the R Street Corridor for instance. Once the remnant of local industry — old storage warehouses, a brewery, a paint and glass company, and the like — it's now a lively thoroughfare brimming with good food, shopping, apartments, and, of course, the WAL artists residence. There is also, of course, the Golden 1 Arena and DOCO. Even further north, the Railyards project continues to progress incrementally — yet another shiny example of dramatic change.
These three projects are important for a specific reason: They're all extremely visible markers of change. As large scale endeavors, they’ve noticeably altered the City’s sightlines/aesthetics and have shifted the way we see Downtown. It’s not the concept of change that is at issue here, nor is it the projects themselves. Instead, it's that these are clear signs of a city gentrifying — a complicated political process that radically transforms neighborhoods and divides public opinion yet is ever-present in the life cycles of a city. It is a process that brings consequences and warrants conscious, critical consideration by us all, especially those driving it.
Tom Agnotti, professor of urban affairs and planning at Hunter College CUNY, explains the problem with gentrification thusly, “[It] is not the same as change in neighborhoods. Change occurs all the time and in every neighborhood . . . Gentrification means wiping out the social history of an existing community or turning that history into a hip, marketable cliché.” Oak Park is an ongoing case study for just how convoluted the situation can become.
You know the drill: gentrifying “dickys up” spaces that ostensibly need it to bring increased economic activity. These spaces are altered irrevocably and eventually longtime residents (and their histories) are either coopted or driven out of their neighborhoods. Meanwhile, debates rage on about whether these spaces are left truly better off and who ultimately benefits from these “improvements.” The pandemic and a highly visible fight for social and racial justice has only made the situation worse. We have a cacophony of circumstances that has placed increased attention on what many of us see and experience around us, which brings me to back 2020’s Experience Architecture .
What made this year’s event important was that it provided a platform to make sense of all these circumstances. It invited us, whether a built environment professional or the general public, to explore, record, question, and celebrate some of the unique current and complex workings of our local environment.
For example, Marsha Maytum — a founding principal of Leddy Maytum Stacy Architects in San Francisco — discussed how architects and architecture can serve as a catalyst for positive social change, marking a time in the City’s history where public activism has remained increasingly dominant in local news cycles. Additionally, a panel discussion with UC Davis Health, Kaiser and Sutter health workers explored their experiences with Covid-19 and how they are helping address “inequities among marginalized groups in our community”. It was a program that encapsulated the convergence between issues of health disparity and equity. Panelists discussed how the pandemic has disproportionately affected Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) and how healthcare systems can be modified to create a more equitable society.
Lastly, the AIACV Housing Task Force explored how affordable and inclusive “Neighborhoods for All” can be created as part of the City’s 2040 General Plan. Once adopted, this plan will serve as the blueprint for how Sacramento will grow over the next twenty years. It was a key program that discussed local government housing policy toolkits, the General Plan itself and how it effects City plans and zoning. Crucially, it looked at at Accessory Dwelling Units (ADU) — a fancy term for “granny flats” — and how they form part of California’s strategy to alleviate the housing crisis, a problem which has and will continue to dog the City as it grows.
These programs, along with Burg’s talk on R Street, and the Bite of Design program made it evident how Experience Architecture typically responds to, addresses, and documents — in real-time — the challenges a changing city faces. They also actively created space for us to engage more consciously and critically with how the built environment impacts our daily life, as they drew visible lines connecting architecture, the City’s social conditions, history and our lived experience. (The Housing Task Force panel is a really pertinent example.) As the City evolves, they will come to exist as time capsules, transporting us back to certain chapters and challenges in the region’s history. As with each previous year, 2020’s event will allow us to trace back to and compare the City’s future evolution with a specific set of socio-economic and political conditions at a particular moment in its history.
Another important dimension to this year’s Experience Architecture — one that exemplifies many of those aspects mentioned above — was the presentation by MASS Design Group, a sprawling architectural firm with 120+ architects working in over 20 different countries. DesignNarrative, the program wherein MASS presented, often provides an intriguing look at local conditions in the context of global ideas. This year the local meets global mashup came courtesy of MASS Founding Principal and Chief Design Officer, Alan Ricks and his presentation: "Justice is Beauty, highlighting MASS’s first decade of designing, researching, and advocating for an architecture of justice and human dignity".
Rick’s presentation explored everything from clean architecture, to environmental sustainability and activist projects MASS has done with artists like Hank Willis Thomas and Sanford Biggers, as well as the concept of a non-profit architectural collective — a firm rooted in pro bono, equitable design collaborations. Ricks ended off the Q and A section by stating “Architecture is not neutral.” It was an apt message as many museum professionals are grappling with the ways in which their institutions aren’t neutral either. Most importantly though, in the context of the City, MASS presents a practice and conceptual framework that places cultural and social equity at the forefront of their design thinking — an act that should be adapted to inform how Sacramento changes (and could change) over the following decade.
Let the People Decide
I’m a real believer in rooting the local in global and vice versa. I view it as fundamental for the exchange of ideas and see it as an important part of innovation. In the case of Experience Architecture, its national scope helps place our City’s evolution in the context of larger discussions around concepts of “the city.”
I also find it fitting that this year’s event kicked off with a hyperlocal program, "A Bite of Design". It’s fitting not only because it adds a local flavor to the global MASS moment, but also because as Experience Architecture ended, the second annual Design Week Sacramento — a city wide showcase of all things design — picked up the mantle, and ran for another week.
Let the citizens themselves decide what spaces and architecture they want to live in and how they wish to live in them.
Two straight weeks of design orientated programming is a reminder that design, in all its forms, is something we encounter everyday and has much to teach us about how we experience our cities and how we live our lives. It is also a reminder to me to look inward while programming.
As an institution we value design. An awareness and appreciation for this field is literally “built” into the fabric of the Crocker, through both the Historic Building and the New Building. It is also reflected in the selection of firms Olson Kundig and SURFACEDESIGN for the new Crocker Park extension. However, we do not have a structured design-based set of public programs — as we have for film — where the Museum continuously engages discursively with our local built environment community or related national and global ideas. Nor have we engaged enough with how the City itself is gentrifying and the consequences that come along with redevelopment. Experience Architecture is one of the few Museum collaborations that has focused on these topics. This means there is much room to expand the Crocker’s role in providing, as Anderson noted, an “opportunity to share” design-centric projects and ideas from local and regional practitioners.
I would like to end with a quote from Sadler’s The Situationist City, a work that explores how the Situationist International movement proposed to reorganize “the city.” The book’s overview states, “Their [the Situationist’s] principle for the reorganization of cities was simple and seductive: let the citizens themselves decide what spaces and architecture they want to live in and how they wish to live in them.” Radical? For sure! The Situationists were deeply interested in revolution. As a theoretical proposition though, it’s a neat way to characterize Experience Architecture as it strives to break down the barriers between those who plan, design, and build this City (and region), and the inhabitants who bring it to life.