Last year, Grace Coulter Sherlock and Marie El-Nawar were separately but simultaneously having similar dialogues and raising questions around the role of design. With a long-time shared interest in the notion of design as a form of activism, they connected through a collective desire for broader conversations on the subject. When their newfound mutual preoccupation intersected with 2020’s international pinnacle state of crises, the two were called to investigate how Canadian practice models were prioritizing ethics and design to respond to the myriad of issues facing the world. Their findings culminated in an overview of where and how change is being created across the practice which was presented at the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada 2021 May virtual conference. We had the opportunity to sit down with Grace and Marie to discuss their research trajectory, findings and hope for the future.
What was happening in your practices that called you to explore how practice models were evolving and responding to today’s social, political, financial, and environmental climate?
Marie: I was finding the current status quo of the practice troubling and discovered that Grace and I were looking to investigate and participate in the same broader conversation around the role and responsibilities of architects. Having had the chance to teach at McGill University, I had also seen how today’s architecture students were concerning themselves with ethics and responsibility of the practice, which contrasted my experience as a student many years ago. This experience triggered a lot of questions for me. With tremendous change happening over the last two years, it felt like the right moment to talk about it.
What is the new normal and what events culminated to this shift?
Grace: The new normal refers to the intersections and amplifications of a series of contemporary crises and states of society such as social and political shifts, climate disruption and rapid densification, to name a few. It calls for new visions of design practice, to adopt new collective and holistic ways of working towards systemic change. Though the term was coined in the academic world, it gained a lot of mainstream popularity last year during the pandemic. I would note that as a term, “the new normal” has been widely adopted and popularized in the media given the events of the past year. As a result, we are now being oversaturated with this phrase.
We’ve seen ethics gradually introduced into the practice over the past few years – how do you see them manifesting at the academic and professional level?
Marie: Architecture was historically one of the primary art forms in society, along with painting and sculpting. Even just the idea of overlaying morality on art was unthinkable, up until the 20th century when we saw perspectives beginning to shift. Ethics then gradually became more widespread in the practice and fostered a paradigm shift towards this idea of a greater good. We are currently seeing a passionate generation of students and emerging architects, but we are also experiencing established practices actively becoming more open and welcoming to questions and in studios. You must have both.
In the case of the practice, where and how can change emerge?
Grace: When it came to our research, our approach was to identify Canadian practices and business models where real systemic change is taking place or is poised to take place. We then identified change-makers and categorized them into three groups: those designing within, designing across and designing beyond. Those who are designing from within can be described as innovative practices working within the traditional models of architectural production who are re-inventing the implementing new ways of working to respond to today’s challenges through the act of building. Those designing across are practitioners who are working at the edge of the profession or stretching its boundaries and redefining them. Designing beyond encompasses both practitioners and non-practitioners working outside of the realm of traditional models of architecture/design and applying their skills to solve today’s societal challenges. There is no singular avenue or approach to take when looking at the role of design today and how various players can respond to societal issues. There are countless ways to transform how we are practicing. In the case of the practitioners we interviewed, a lot of them have shifted their collective role and focus from questions of semantics and iconography to relevance. They’ve adopted hybrid models.
Striving for relevance, meaning and responsibility
Marie and Grace are hopeful for the future of the role of design and its ability to remain agile in the face of a continuously evolving context. “The amazing people that we interviewed were not only “agile”, but they are also questioning the status quo continuously, tackling hard societal questions, re-inventing themselves and their practice to build a new social contract between the profession and the public. They have shifted their focus from questions of semantics and iconography to questions of relevance. And for me, this is what is really interesting”, Marie concluded. This constant state of evolution is what keeps architecture so poised to evolve. Beyond agility, this broader conversation is really striving for relevance, meaning and responsibility in the practice, in the face of change and crisis. Today’s realities are different than they were ten years ago – and the practice should be reflective of that. The pair intend to carry their research forward by continuing to identify the avenues and roles in which change in the practice can take place.
Read The Role of Today’s Architect – an article that explores the future of the profession, as discussed at DesignTO with Marie El Nawar and Andrew King.
Grace Coulter Sherlock
As Lemay’s regional director for Western Canada and Associate with Lemay, Grace oversees all stages of the design process, providing the team with guidance, creative direction and support. Grace has designed a wide range of award-winning architectural and interior design projects across Canada, many of them grounded in the prairie and mountain vernacular. Grace’s practice of architecture is centered on the research and dialog surrounding inclusive design models.
Marie El Nawar
Marie El-Nawar is an architect, design and research leader within Lemay’s design research cell. She believes in a collaborative and integrated design approach that puts architectural experimentation at the heart of her practice. Her commitment to the research and development of new design methodologies has enabled her to lead the design of numerous award-winning projects within Canada.