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Wilkins: Lifting Voices and Designing “Urban Acupunctures”

Thursday, March 25, 2021

Detroit may have been built around the automobile, but one in four people who call the Motor City home don’t own one. Instead, they rely on a public transit system that the city’s mayor, Mike Duggan, has called “probably the worst in the country.” And while local leaders fret that it’s holding back the region’s economic growth, for residents — especially the 40 percent of Black people who don’t drive — the problems are more immediate: long walks, two-hour waits for the bus, or an entire day spent on travel just to see the doctor.

“People couldn’t buy ice cream in the summertime, because by the time they got home, it was water,” says Craig Wilkins, a lecturer in architecture at Taubman College, former director of the Detroit Collaborative Design Center (DCDC), and creative director of the Wilkins Project, a Detroit-based design consultancy with a social justice mission. As a scholar, writer, and teacher, Wilkins focuses on telling the stories of African-Americans in architecture and lifting up the voices of marginalized communities — an effort that won him the 2017 National Design Award in the category of “Design Mind” from the Cooper-Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. His creative practice, meanwhile, emphasizes what he calls “urban acupunctures; small architectures that relieve the pressures of everyday life” — like the hassles and indignities suffered by people forced to rely on transit that is fundamentally unreliable.

“We got to thinking, as citizens, as people who live here in Detroit, what can do about the bus system?” Wilkins says, recalling the genesis of a 2014 project he led for DCDC. “We can protest, we can show up at planning or budgetary meetings. But what can we do as designers? We can’t make the buses run faster. We can’t put money into the system. But we can at least make the wait for buses a little more humane.”

Out of some 6,000 bus stops around the city, Wilkins and his colleagues at DCDC learned that only 375 had seating or shelters. Meanwhile, the city was working to demolish thousands of vacant homes. The group realized that the tear-down program offered an opportunity — the houses were filled with unwanted building materials that they could repurpose for bus shelters, while also diverting part of the waste stream from a landfill.

Out of that was born “Door Stops,” which took old doors and other salvaged materials, gave them an attractive paint job courtesy of local artists, and fashioned them into benches and awnings for bus stops around the city. The project earned nationwide media attention, as well as the appreciation of local bus riders. While Detroit eventually removed the shelters (which were technically illegal), the project shone a light on persistent problem, and in subsequent years the city installed dozens of new bus shelters.

“Door Stops” also offered a case study in some of the major principles of a nascent movement known as hip-hop architecture — principles that guide Wilkins’s theory and practice.

“Hip-hop culture essentially took powerless forms and made them powerful,” Wilkins says. From its roots among Black and Latino youth living in the housing projects of the Bronx in the late 1970s and ’80s, he explains, hip hop culture has always been a social movement. “It took disposable technology, like turntables, and — one might even argue — disposable people, whom nobody cared about, and made them indispensable. And hip-hop architecture is hip-hop culture in built form. It’s about using materials in ways that may not have ever been intended, reclaiming people and place and identity against the constant barrage of denigration and erasure, and dealing with the power imbalance in the built environment.”

Hip-hop architecture has garnered more attention in recent years, with a major exhibition at the Center for Architecture in New York, TED Talks, and a feature in Architect magazine. But while it’s a useful concept, Wilkins refuses to let the label limit a set of practices and ideals that, he argues, ought to infuse the entire profession.

That mission lies at the heart of his work at Taubman College, where Wilkins has found his students to be increasingly concerned about injustice — and “impatient” to dismantle it with the design tools at their disposal. His popular graduate course, “Design Activism and Social Justice,” challenges students to think about how architects can help empower communities to take control over their own built environment, whether it’s addressing long-running systemic issues like race-based redlining, urban renewal, and housing access — or simply providing a decent place to wait for the bus.

“I think the things that hip-hop architecture attempts to do should just be architecture,” Wilkins says. “Architecture has historically been skittish about its social responsibility. But we can make a difference with our skills. Architecture should be about justice. It should be about people, about ethical practices. Those things should just be foundational.”

Amy Crawford

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