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Interview with Marlisa Wise – Collaborative Designer

Marlisa Wise is an architect whose work focuses on the social role of design. As co-founder of the collaborative studio Interval-Projects, she has worked as a designer and scholar in post-conflict and post-disaster regions. She has also worked in collaboration with numerous grassroots community groups in New York City, where she resides. Marlisa is currently working on a multi-year research project on the architectural products of humanitarian interventions, to be published with Birkhäuser in 2017. Her work has been published in Domus, Volume, San Rocco, and the New York Times, among others. She is a graduate of Columbia University (MArch) and Brown University (BA), and a part-time faculty member at Parsons.

Q: Design Change is…

A: I see ‘design change’ as both a provocation and an invitation, not only to designers, but to everyone affected by design and architecture. It’s a call for us to use design as a means of imagining and building the world we want to inhabit together.

Change doesn’t happen by simply choosing to oppose or reproduce existing structures. Design requires capital, financial or otherwise, and so it always has some complicity with whatever it seeks to change. But that doesn’t determine its effects. So I’m more interested in finding the right rhythm in a choreography of various tactics to provoke change. Keller Easterling suggests a variety of techniques or dispositions, including seemingly counterintuitive moves like ‘absolute submission’ or ‘exaggerated compliance,’ but we may also consider opposition, refusal, mimicry, Trojan horse, passivity, fleeing, co-opting, protest, critique, displays of weakness or frivolity, and so on. ‘Design Change’ challenges us, whether as designers or as political animals, to be aware of the risks and potentials of the various tactics that comprise our repertoires.

Of course, it’s not that easy. It can seem overwhelming, in a world of inequality and violence, to envision what an alternative would look like and how we will live within it. But that maybe overstates the importance of a grand vision, when perhaps what we need is a lever or instrument, something more tactile and instantaneous, that can torque on what is already there and in doing so rearrange some piece of it, or at least articulate what it is. That is what motivates me as a designer.

Q: What’s the big opportunity for design in Seattle?

A: I live in New York, so it’s imprudent for me to speculate. But I’ve heard stories from friends about how quickly development is happening in some neighborhoods in Seattle, and with it the patterns of displacement that we see in other cities. Not all forms of ‘change,’ to pick up on the festival theme, are desirable to everyone. In thinking about change, the potential of revaluing certain archaisms is appealing to me: regionalism, folklore, outmoded technologies, forgotten jargon or even whole languages. We’ve seen in this election cycle the tactical use of archaisms, mostly on the right, glorifying the quality of life that (white, male) working class Americans are purported to have enjoyed in the last century. Conservatism is probably more adept at isolating specific archaisms and exploding them into contemporary politics, but I don’t think that means that all archaisms are conservative or only serve conservative ends: some archaisms might provide an opening or break up a ‘path dependency,’ shaking loose some conceptual plaque that had formed and creating another, more desirable possibility for change. This is aesthetic project as much as a political one, or rather it demonstrates the inevitable entanglement of politics and aesthetics.

Q: What and where are the greatest opportunities for design to create change?

A: Without forsaking their traditional role – the design of the singular object – designers might extend their expertise to creating transferable tools and skills that groups of non-experts can use to collectively shape their environments. We hear a lot about ‘design thinking’ these days, usually describing a corporate strategy aiming to make employees more creative, problem-solving, and therefore profitable to their employers. But we could also consider design thinking outside of profit motives, as a mindset or temperament that approaches the world as a system whose givens can be altered, in which an individual or community can intervene and, if not ‘create change,’ at least make changes. What if we take the analytic and speculative tools of design out of the studio and into the other environments that we inhabit? What if we begin to share these strategies, and apply them to the world around us? This is where I see the greatest opportunity for design: to act on the balance of power and control by developing the tools that allow people to change their own world.

Q: What or whom do you prioritize when designing?

A: My practice, Interval Projects, is a collaborative architecture and research practice that works at a variety of scales and environments, and so in each project we consider the scope and qualities of potential effects. Some of our work has what I think of as hard edges, private residences for example, where the design can have one set of effects for those who inhabit it but a completely different result beyond its own walls, which requires precision in the way that we work as designers. Other projects have a targeted and directional force, such as our written and illustrated research work, which attempts to create spatial narratives through the analytical tools of design. Then there are the projects I think of as more porous in their influence, like our design work with community groups, where the impact happens through participation in the design process itself as well as the open and public nature of the resulting environment. This last category I find to be both most challenging and most exciting at the moment, as it creates an atmosphere of transformative possibility wherein the designer is just as likely to be influenced and affected by the clients as the other way around. I enjoy leaving ourselves open to the ideas that come back at us through such a design process, and to watch the design flourish and grow when shaped by many hands.

Q: There’s an Italo Calvino quote, “A world without forgetting is hell.” How do you balance an understanding of tradition, institutional memory, or wisdom, with the necessity of forgetting things and moving on in order to achieve progress? Is there anything new left to do?

A: The narrative of progress is often used to cover over violence, a sort of ends-justify-the-means logic that devalues anyone or anything considered to be standing in the way. It’s worth stating the obvious here: the displacement of communities in the name of progress has a long history in this country, stretching back through waves of economic displacement, segregation and ethnic violence, relocation, confinement, and settler colonialism, to name only a few techniques. I’d like to point out that every one of those stages, every one of those methods of violence and erasure, has an architecture, a set of forms designed and built to make displacement possible. I’d like to think that architecture can also be used critically in the face of that violence.

These are some of the issues that we grappled with while designing ‘Metal Over Wood’, a collaborative project with Women of Color Speak Out at the Seattle Design Festival Block Party. During our design process, we considered the history of Pioneer Square as a Native community and the successive waves of displacement of people of color in Seattle. We reflected on the destruction of the natural environment that has occurred and continues to occur, the reshaping of the river and the street grid imposed over Seattle’s ecosystems, the restructuring of an entire landscape. Our installation incorporates imagery from Seattle’s past, echoing the form of the Native plankhouses that once stood in Pioneer Square. Its enclosure is a mesh of woven filaments in the form of Seattle’s street grid, through which we weave contemporary construction materials using a Native basket pattern known as ‘Spreading Out’. Our project attempts to create a space for these historical and contemporary realities to intertwine, rendering the simultaneous coexistence of many overlapping histories of the city. The idea of simultaneity is very important—these histories are always present in each instant, but are not always made visible.

Q: If you could change one thing about your design profession, what would it be?

A: If I could change one thing about the architectural profession today, it would be the presumption of a singular relationship between the designer and the client. The standard model assumes that the client’s goals, program and choices are always right, or at the very least right-enough, and that the designer’s appropriate role is to give form to the best version of those ambitions, whatever they may be. I find this presumption both dangerous and limiting.

I would challenge architects to try on different roles, experiment with the type of relationship you can build with your clients, or even think about relationships other than architect-client. In our practice, rather than conceiving of our work as delimited by the traditional architect-client relationship, we try to approach each project as a collaboration, which allows us the ability to question and be questioned, and to be open to a range of perspectives and possible outcomes.

We’ve been lucky to have some amazing collaborators, mentors, and friends, who continually spark these possibilities in our thinking and practice, and deserve mention here, including architects like Kian Goh, Jeffery Inaba, Felicity Scott, and Keller Easterling, artists like Caroline Woolard, cooperatives and collectives like the New York City Real Estate Investment Cooperative, Flux Factory, Point A NYC, and Smiling Hogshead Ranch, and organizers and activists like 596 Acres.

Learn more about Marlisa’s work:
Email  – [email protected]