Designing for Diversity: Our Conversation with the BSA
The following interview was published on the Boston Society of Architects website in May 2019.
Eric and Kevin were recently interviewed for a firm profile with the BSA, and what followed was a great conversation that touched on RODE's perspective of the city and what it means to design for our community:
You’re rooted in Boston, right? How did your practice come together? Yes, we've built our lives in the Dorchester community, although if you ask our long-time resident neighbors, they might still say we’re the new guys on the block (19 years, hardly new guys)! We do bring an outsider’s perspective – we met while pursuing our undergraduate degrees at NC State – that allows us to see the opportunities before our neighborhood. And so we joined together to form RODE (ROW-dee) out of an aspiration to do better for Dorchester. The firm’s early days were built off personal relationships, local visibility, and civic engagement - we were just two guys who wanted to improve our own community. Now we use those initial goals to improve every neighborhood of Boston.
What makes Boston a unique place for architecture/planning practices today? This city is grounded in a rich, centuries-long history, and has reinvented itself many times over that history. Today the city’s global profile brings fortune 500 headquarters and international investment to the inner-core neighborhoods; it’s a great time for Boston! Meanwhile, the peripheral neighborhoods remain an underserved market for great design. This isn’t necessarily a problem unique to our city, but we do see the way Boston’s neighborhoods each hold distinct concerns, demographics, and values, and that can have a direct effect on the way projects move through the community review process.
We are particularly attuned to the strength neighborhoods hold in influencing the outcomes of development. Any hope for successfully navigating the approvals process requires seeing this strength an asset; in fact, some of our most successful partnerships have arisen out of community review. Gaining the support of local constituents while advocating for the interests of your client – all amid escalating construction costs – requires real imagination and vision. That is probably one of the reasons why we haven’t seen enough design richness and innovation in the city. But with the right partners and community insight, we are hopeful the city will rise to the challenge of bringing new design ideas to fruition.
Your work seems to elevate a community’s natural vibe. What’ve you learned about talking with clients, builders, and people in the community that helps you get the essence of a structure, space, or place just right? Why is it important to do that?
We love our role as architects, one that realizes tangible change that can improve people’s daily lives. To best achieve that goal, we have to instill each project with the values and character of the people that will be effected by them, both occupants and neighbors. RODE’s work is built on collaboration, and we find that everything we do depends on the energy that all members of the team brings to the process. Architects translate program and need into design opportunity, and we must be nimble enough to allow the idiosyncrasies that arise from a collaborative process to influence and enrich the design.
Another perspective that grounds our approach is the experience of sitting on the other side of the table, and being on the receiving end of new development in our neighborhood. Knowing your audience, and finding way to convey the goals of the project in a common language will ensure that all parties involved can share a sense of ownership and pride in the finished project.
Will you share an unexpectedly delightful experience you’ve encountered during the community engagement process here in Boston?
RODE has built an approachable process that lets us communicate in many different venues, but it is not a formulaic approach. Every time we are out talking to a community we have to find that shared language to effectively communicate a project’s goals. We held bi-lingual community meetings for our 3200 Washington St project, to make the process more accessible to Jamaica Plain’s diverse population, and the participation was enthusiastic. Projects like DOT Block get presented many times to nearly a dozen different community associations, and with good reason, as projects at that scale can have an impact far beyond their immediate abutters. In our own neighborhood, we were able to achieve true transit-oriented development at Savin Residences with no parking, by having honest and informed discussions with our neighbors.
You just announced news about working with The Community Builders and Pine Street Inn to develop permanent supportive housing for former Pine Street residents and others who may need it. Congratulations! What’s the big thinking behind this project and why was it appealing to you as people and as practicing design professionals?
Thank you! RODE thrives off the energy of our clients, and these two institutions bring a drive and a know-how for solving deeply-rooted social & urban problems that is infectious and inspiring. We believe in their mission, and know that our design and planning expertise can bring physical form to their aspirations. Architecture is routinely perceived as an unapproachable luxury, so we are on a mission to change this perception. We know that good design improves the daily existence of its users and enhances our overall lives no matter what the budget. With the right partners, this can be possible.
The housing crisis, grappling with a thriving economy that leaves some populations in its wake - these are themes that too often headline our news cycle. So there is enormous excitement among all team members to be engaged together on a project that directly addresses these issues.
What will it look like if the TCB/Pine Street project is successful? What might it inspire throughout Greater Boston or elsewhere? Success means proving that supportive and affordable housing can be built within the constraints of today’s construction industry. A project of this scope and scale is impossible without a strong public-private partnership, and The Community Builders have cultivated a model that proves this can be a workable solution for other communities.
In terms of its presence in the neighborhood, we hope that this project will blend in with the contemporary structures that are beginning to populate this corridor of Boston, and provide its residents with an armature to sustain a vibrant quality of life in this diverse community. RODE is approaching this project with the same care and diligence as any of our residential and mixed-use works, and will strive to guarantee it meets the same high standards as the rest of our portfolio.
What, if anything, can architecture/planning practices do to foster social equity among our communities? Architects occupy a space at the crossroads of the private sector, government agencies, and the public realm. From this vantage point we can advocate on multiple fronts, and exert outsized influence on the way the built environment works for everyone. We do need to do a better job engaging the actual populations that are affected by our projects, and creating a venue where those voices can be heard. Admittedly, it can sometimes be tricky for architects to navigate that line, and to responsibly advocate for our client in an arena of sometimes competing interests. That is why we are excited by the unexpected alignments of some of our recent projects, where the collective benefits of the project are shared across many different constituencies.
What do you want to do next?
RODE has a unique perspective on design, by putting the communities we serve in the forefront of all that we do. We will continue to apply our creative skill as designers that empowers us to identify unexpected compatibilities among developers, institutions, and non-profits. RODE is currently engaged in mission-driven development on a number of fronts and in communities across the region. We are giving new form to two long standing religious institutions in Brighton, and helping the Boston Public Library envision a new, mixed-use typology. The institutions behind these projects are finding ways to leverage the current boom into opportunities to modernize, expand their reach and capability, and forge new connections across the urban landscape. We’ve only just begun to explore the possibilities that are unlocked by these types of collaborations, and look forward to many more unexpected ventures in the future.