The Voices of People. The Stories of Place. The Politics of Power at the Architecture Center Houston redefines community engagement

Designing Change

The Voices of People. The Stories of Place. The Politics of Power at the Architecture Center Houston redefines community engagement

Architecture Center Houston recently staged The Voices of People. The Stories of Place. The Politics of Power. (Courtesy Architecture Center Houston)

Established in 2005, the Community Design Resource Center (CDRC) has produced a varied body of work that intersects architecture, design, planning, community development, art, social practice, and activism. The CDRC at the University of Houston Gerald D. Hines College of Architecture and Design is unique in its commitment to bridging the gap between in-depth research and practical implementation. Through exhibitions, written work, and design proposals, the CDRC continues to influence how designers approach community-driven solutions. Under the leadership of director Susan Rogers—associate professor at the University of Houston—and curator Jose Mario Lopez, the CDRC exhibited The Voices of People. The Stories of Place. The Politics of Power at the Architecture Center Houston, challenging viewers to rethink their understanding of listening within the design process.

photography on wall for exhibtion
(Courtesy Architecture Center Houston)

“The exhibit is not an exhaustive representation of people or place or power; it is a window open briefly to breathe change into space,” wrote Rogers in a text accompanying the exhibition. The work on view makes viewers stop and reconsider the boundaries between public and private—and eventually, between beauty and ordinariness—through its curated collection of audio/visual storytelling centered on 12 Houston super neighborhoods. The CDRC’s projects range from public art to urban design and community visioning, all aimed at reflecting the diverse landscape of Houston. And true to its mission, the venue for this show had a dual purpose. It was designed to activate the lobby of the Architecture Center and display the art, films, and ephemera of the CDRCs community work while also serving as a space for fostering community engagement itself.

Through partnerships with local leaders, the CDRC has completed over 50 projects in 38 Houston super neighborhoods—larger neighborhoods created by the city “to encourage residents of neighboring communities to work together to identify, prioritize and address the needs and concerns of the broader community.”

round table in the center of the exhibition gallery at Architecture Center Houston
(Courtesy Architecture Center Houston)

Photographs of influential community leaders who have worked with the CDRC in the past lined the walls, captured by local Houston photographer Joe Robles. These life-sized portraits draw you into the periphery of the space, offering a glimpse into the intricacies of each mission, conflict, and fight for betterment the leaders represent. Accompanying the portraits were descriptions of each of these, now portrayed as artful subjects. Recorded interviews with six of the community leaders allow viewers to go deeper, unveiling more personal understandings of each neighborhood’s goals and struggles.

The exhibition design went beyond just the walls of the lobby to also take advantage of the architecture of the space. Three square-profile columns divided the space, allowing each of the columns to hang maps and visual histories of the 12 neighborhoods featured in the exhibit. These descriptions transcend mere depictions of the built environment and urban planning—they delve into detailed accounts of discrimination and privilege, illustrating how these factors have shaped the character of the neighborhoods. They offer viewers a glimpse into the “rich culture and history, reinforced by the legacy of the families who first settled the area and the new generation of leaders championing change,” Rogers wrote. The maps in particular help visualize the scale of the city affected by legislative changes, and also helps clarify the understood boundaries within these Super Neighborhoods, prompting deeper questions about the impact of infrastructure and proximity.

text on columns in the gallery space
The exhibition extends to the three square-profile columns in the gallery space. (Courtesy Architecture Center Houston)

A video loop projection showcased Houston communities plays in the background of the exhibition, serving as a backdrop to the conversations held within the space and during community events. This video was created by walking specific routes through each neighborhood, opting to walk rather than drive to slow down the pace and encourage visitors to take a closer look. Often, these neighborhoods are underserved or stereotyped, and by simply driving through, one misses the opportunity to appreciate the community and beauty within them. By highlighting the lush greenery and built landscape that community members see daily, the video brings everyday scenes into the exhibition. The context and texture of this works with the cartographic representations on the columns, offering an on-the-ground contrast. But with the video footage we also have greater connection to the portraits of activist leaders that began the exhibition. Overall, this visual backdrop helps to reveals the complex layers of community space not readily apparent in the white walls of a gallery, presenting something vibrant and multifaceted.

At the center of it was a round 8-person table. For the curators, it solidifies the role of the exhibition space as one for dialogue and conversation. After the initial opening, this table served as the setting for an engaged community meeting. When not being used for meetings though, the table serves as a place where visitors can browse through previous work done by the CDRC.

exhibition view with images and text
(Courtesy Architecture Center Houston)

Architecture is undergoing critical examination, revealing significant inequalities in the design process where dominant voices are often those that prevail. This exhibition highlights a topic not often discussed in design, prompting both designers and non-designers to reflect on their roles within the community. The Voices of People. The Stories of Place. The Politics of Power serves as a call to action for all of us to reassess our approach to design, encouraging introspection: What is worth fighting for and how we can contribute to a future where equitable design is possible?

For those who were unable to view the exhibition before its closing in April, it will be on display again, at the Mashburn Gallery at the University of Houston this fall.

Rodrigo Gallardo is a Houston-based designer at Protolab Architects. His writing has been featured in Texas Architect and Cite: The Architecture and Design Review of Houston.