Bryan Lee, Jr. may have studied architecture, but he is by no means just an architect. Bryan’s philosophy and ideas are big, challenging and adamant. To address these ideas, in 2017, Bryan created Colloqate Design in New Orleans, a firm that uses design thinking to create a conversation or dialogue (thus, the name of their firm) within the community to speak both to “collective values and ideals or reveal persisting inequity and injustice.” Everything is on the table. Sustainability, community history, immigration, transportation, food security, housing values. Bryan says, “Design justice is a foundational principle; it is not a design process, yet. It is an underlying framework for how to think about getting to the architecture.”
Interested in architecture at a very young age of ten or eleven, Bryan recalls, as a child, noticing the dramatic difference between the spaces and places of Sicily (he was an Air Force brat) and the streets of Trenton, NJ. Out of school he did a stint in an architecture firm, as well as two years as Place and Civic Design Director for the New Orleans Arts Council. But with Colloqate established, alongside the last few years of intensely heightened awareness of issues of racism and climate change in the U.S., his firm’s impact is growing.
Bryan is a founding organizer of the Design Justice Platform, and he co-organized the Design As Protest National Day of Action (hosting more than 30 workshops). Most notably, he was named 2021 National Design Award winner in the emerging designer category by the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. He was also a 2018 Fast Company Most Creative People in Business and a 2019 Architectural League Emerging Voice.
Read the podcast transcript here
Eve Picker: [00:00:06] Hi there. Thanks for joining me on Rethink Real Estate. For Good. I’m Eve Picker and I’m on a mission to make real estate work for everyone. I love real estate. Real estate makes places good or bad, rich or poor, beautiful or not. In this show, I’m interviewing the disruptors, those creative thinkers and doers that are shrugging off the status quo, in order to build better for everyone. If you haven’t already, check out all of my podcasts at our website RethinkRealEstateForGood.co, or you can find them at your favorite podcast station. You’ll find lots worth listening to, I’m sure.
Eve: [00:01:01] Bryan Lee may have studied architecture, but he’s more than an architect. He launched Colloqate Design in New Orleans to explore big, challenging and adamant ideas about equity in the built environment. At Colloqate Design, a community conversation puts everything on the table. Sustainability, community history, immigration, transportation, food security and housing values. The end goal is an equitable, physical landscape. It’s a fascinating conversation. Listen in to learn more. If you’d like to join me in my quest to rethink real estate, there are two simple things you can do. Share this podcast and go to rethinkrealestateforgood.co where you can subscribe to be the first to hear about my podcasts, blog posts and other goodies.
Eve: [00:02:06] Hi, Bryan. I’m just delighted to have this opportunity to talk to you today.
Bryan Lee: [00:02:10] Yeah, wonderful. Thank you for inviting me.
Eve: [00:02:13] You have a really big, bold idea to design spaces of racial, social and cultural justice. What does this statement mean to you and why is it so important?
Bryan: [00:02:26] Yeah. I mean, the way that I kind of define culture is that it is the consequence of persistent circumstance and immediate condition, meaning there’s a long history that drives how culture is formed and it is directly impacted by how we’re currently living, which means that every space that has a connection to our racial, social, cultural worlds is significant in the shaping of our lives. And so, for me, when we think about justice in any of those spaces, it requires us to have a cultural framing. It requires us to understand a history of racial violence, racial oppression and racialized joys. There are there are joys that come as a by-product of the communities that are formed through moments of oppression. And so, I think recognizing those, not ignoring them and elevating them to a valuable asset within a design process, within an architecture, within an urban plan or urban design, allows us to have more just spaces that serve more people.
Eve: [00:03:45] I love that you talk about joy in there as well.
Bryan: [00:03:48] Yeah, it’s necessary.
Eve: [00:03:50] My parents were actually refugees and what always surprised me about them was they went through six really long, hard years in labor camps, but they always spoke about these joyful moments that, you know, were part of that community. Exactly. Exactly what you said.
Bryan: [00:04:06] Yeah. Even to that, I grew up and my father used to tell me he didn’t know he was poor until he went to college and people told him he was poor. And part of that is that, like, community is so necessary and specifically for marginalized or disinherited communities. We often form social capital and cultural capital together that allows us the currency to move through the world, and that is usually shaped by the moments that are created through joy, through those experiences that build connection with one another. And so, I find it utterly necessary for us to conceive of an architecture that responds to those joys or responds to those disparities, and acknowledges the fact that people who have had to create cultures out of violence or oppression or harm or trauma have spatial solutions to a world that is actively seeking to harm them oftentimes. So anyway, yeah.
Eve: [00:05:07] Yeah, my parents actually met in those labor camps. So that was a very, you know, and they were a long love story. So, it was it was a strange mix, as you said. So, your platform is called Colloqate. What exactly is Colloqate?
Bryan: [00:05:26] Yeah, thanks for asking. Most people don’t, so it’s nice. So Colloqate is a combination of two words and one formal word. So, if we think about kind of colloquial, the kind of informal or sophisticatedly informal use of formal language, whether that be written language, whether that be cultural language or spatial language is a necessary understanding. So, understanding that informality and how people use that informality to shape their space is significant. And then location. So, what is the informal language of a place? Right. And so Colloqate is really trying to understand those relationships. And then the term I found, the word collocate with a C, to be even more enlightening when it comes to the type of work we’re looking to do, because it talks about the sequence of words and phrases habitually juxtaposed at a greater frequency than chance. And for us, that is exactly what we’re looking at. We’re looking at the sequence of people in place habitually juxtaposed at a greater frequency than chance, where there are people and places and spaces. How often are those people there? Why are they there? What are the relationships that people have between those spaces? Acknowledging that they are unique to particular cultural, racial, social communities means that we can understand that frequency as an affirmation of the type of space that might want to be built in the future. So that’s what Colloqate means.
Eve: [00:07:08] That is what Colloqate. So, what services do you provide and why do you think they’re important?
Bryan: [00:07:15] We are a non-profit design justice practice, so our focus is a, it is a social mission to deal with projects that are around advocacy, around organizing and around design. And so, we provide services that fit within those three brackets. From an advocacy standpoint, we do trainings on all of our projects as well as we do trainings on a project-by-project basis or just for the general public. So, the intention then is to kind of create a wealth of knowledge for folks to move and move their practice in the direction of design justice. And so that’s part of the advocacy. We also advocate for housing rights, tenant rights. We advocate for community voice in projects. We are a firm that does research and works on projects that are focused on anti-Carceral spaces. So how do we kind of think about the abolition of space, not just as a way to eliminate a certain type of space, but as an opportunity to create new types of spaces that hold people with care and value. And so those are the types of things we do. And again, practically, we still kind of hold the standard scope of services. We do planning work. We do engagement work pretty heavily and a lot of organizing work.
Eve: [00:08:54] But I mean, it’s an unusual practice. First of all, the fact that you’re a non-profit is pretty unusual in the architecture world and the range of services is pretty unusual as well. What led you to use your training in this way?
Bryan: [00:09:08] I worked in the field in the kind of, quote unquote, traditional architectural practice for, I don’t know, 14, 15 years before leaving, going and working for the city and then expanding and starting my own practice. I think the thing that led me here, well, there’s obviously multiple moments along the timeline that shape and shift how you get to at any given point. But I think leave grad school, I graduated in 2000, end of 2008 right before the market crashed. So maybe a month or two before the market crashed. Yeah, there were no jobs for a significant amount of time. And so, I had to re-evaluate how I wanted to exist within the profession, whether or not I was even going to be in the profession. I didn’t know that there was going to be a profession for me to go back to. And so, or at least in the way that I wanted to. And so, part of it was taking a moment during that recession and reflecting on how I wanted to exist if I were going to exist in the architectural world, how might I do that? And so, I wrote down the things that that were important to me and thinking about some of the other organizing work that I had done in the past, whether that was kind of community organizing or kind of in the political space, I found that to be extremely vital to who I was as a human. And I found the architecture world to be very kind of necessary for me to kind of grow as well.
Bryan: [00:10:45] And so, I couldn’t, but I couldn’t figure out how to connect those two things. And so, what really led me to this is that I started a program or expanded a program called Project Pipeline here in New Orleans, Louisiana, in 2012 with a bunch of people, all of the names which I can’t name immediately, just because it’s a lot of people. But we started this program, expanded it to this idea around social justice, through design education. And so, we taught students across the city for six years, and the program still goes, I turned it over. But we taught them, thousands and thousands of students to think about their spaces through that lens. And the more and more we did that, the more and more kind of connected we felt in our communities through that work.
Bryan: [00:11:39] It made me realize that a) it was possible that it was easier to understand than most architects are kind of adults may lead you to believe. And then I had the opportunity to leave the kind of traditional practice and go work for the Arts Council of New Orleans to essentially work on place and civic design work. So, ground level work that was still architectural in nature or sculptural in nature. It was public art and community design. And from there I really found that to be hyper intriguing, in large part because the people who are engaging in those art pieces and those spaces were wildly different than the folks that you often see engaging in the architectures that I was building and that felt wrong. It felt wrong that that the communities I serve, the communities that I’m a part of were not, did not have access to the type of space that we wanted to create in other realms. So that was the driver. And once I left the Arts Council, I said, I can go back and work for another firm or I can give this a shot. And so that’s what we did. We started a practice and really wanted to kind of lean into that as a tool, lean into design justice as the tool to drive how we conceive of the architecture we’re putting into the world.
Eve: [00:13:10] You know, I find this especially interesting because I don’t know if you realize this, I’m an architect by training. And I’ve always thought that architecture training is perhaps the best training that anyone could get. We were trained to be makers. We make something out of absolutely nothing. Right. So, there’s this really incredible problem-solving path that you take from nothing to, you know, sometimes enormous projects. And it’s always been bewildering to me that more architects don’t take a different path because architecture, dare I say it, is a little precious.
Bryan: [00:13:45] It is.
Eve: [00:13:47] And it’s just such a wonderful tool. So, yeah, I totally get, I totally get why you went in this direction. So, when you do this work, how do you bring stakeholders on board to see the issues that you know to be true.
Bryan: [00:14:03] The way that we engage is first with the acknowledgement that there are three different types of outreach that happen. One is just a general outreach, which is, which is a communication tool that is often from a developer or an architect or a client to a community, oftentimes doesn’t have a lot of feedback, but it is an acknowledgement that something is happening. We try to avoid that pretty much at all costs. Moving into engagement, you often have some sort of dialogue, right? So, it is, there’s a feedback loop that happens with engagement. But if you’ve worked in a design firm, you often, you’ll recognize that it is often extractive because we don’t stay in those communities. We’re often in grab it, form relationships, and then we’re gone, right? And so that is also harmful. If you also on the other end of that, if you’ve ever talk to your community members after that process, you’ll hear from them that they feel jilted and don’t like that process over and over and over again. And so we tend to move ourselves more towards the organizing space, which is a means and opportunity for us to build power in communities through a design process. And we really bring this to a head when we kind of bring to bear that there is no better way to build community than through organizing one’s community around building a space. It takes an awful lot of time. There’s an awful lot of money, there’s an awful lot of money involved and there’s a ton of decisions. And so all of those things communities want some self-determination around. And if we create a process within the design of a building that or space that reflects the voice of those people, then not only will there be more investment into those spaces, but the spaces will reflect and be more present for the communities we serve.
Bryan: [00:16:06] And so the way that we do that just in general is a couple of ways we hire what we call community design advocates as a part of the team, so they become a part of the design team. They are they are not a focus group. They can serve in a focus manner, but their primary obligation to the project is to continue doing the organizing work that they were previously doing. So, if they were talking about tenant rights or if they were talking about cultural spaces throughout a particular neighborhood, their job is to, kind of, continue engaging with their community members around those things that they care deeply about. And so, in doing so, they have pre-existing relationships, they have pre-existing knowledge that we will never get, right. We can’t have it through unless we have those previous relationships as well. We just can’t. And so, can we relinquish some of our ego and need to hold power along every single step of the way and allow for community members to thoroughly describe how they experience space, how they think about space, and how they want to see space articulated, and then try to translate that. And our job then becomes translator rather than to present a series of drawings or renderings that may completely miss a mark. So that’s one way.
Eve: [00:17:39] I like the notion of relinquishing ego, which is probably very hard for many architects to do.
Bryan: [00:17:46] Yeah. Yeah, it is. It’s difficult and understandably so. Like, people don’t really fully understand how hard it is to be an architect.
Eve: [00:17:55] Yes. No, I think that’s true. I think that’s true.
Bryan: [00:17:58] So very difficult and the stakes are high. But anyway, the other two things is we create. So along with the CDOs, we create what we call a spatial implications document. And so, every conversation that’s had throughout the course of a project is tracked, and that might mean 30 to 40000 comments. And we tag and theme those comments. Those comments are then broken down into process implications, program implications and spatial implications. And then we talk with the client about process implications, meaning we can make the spatial suggestion, but if you don’t change a process, then the outcome is going to be the exact same. So that’s one thing. Programmatic Solutions. What activities are people kind of reflecting throughout the sets of conversations? So, we talk with community members again to kind of compare and reflect on the activities that people want to have. And then the spatial documentation is really just about the design team and how we reflect some of those other process and programmatic implications into an architecture, into the spaces we’re designing. And then lastly, we infuse what we call a design justice set into our standard architectural set, which just means that for everything that’s produced, whether it’s on safety, whether it’s on recreational space or restrooms, we create the themes, and it will reflect itself into the architectural drawings. And so, we tag and annotate every design decision that was critical through the engagement process and through the project management team’s process. And we tag those on the drawing, so we talk about the things and hold ourselves accountable to the things that the community said. And we attempt to say, these things are happening, these things are not happening, and here’s why they’re not happening. Right? So, it’s a level of accountability that will live on past the submission of the architectural documents.
Eve: [00:20:12] That’s pretty fascinating. So, I have to ask, how different do these spaces end up because of that process? If you sort of reflect and say, okay, if I were to go in and design this without this process, you know, how different would it look?
Bryan: [00:20:28] I don’t think it’s major. What I think is that there are I mean, I think it’s like a tone and intonation in someone’s dictation or speech to someone like you can tell when someone means something sarcastically or when they mean something genuinely. I think it’s that, I think the community voice is very much a tone and inflection in the architecture rather than large gestural moves most of the time. It doesn’t mean that it’s not those. Yeah, but, but so for instance, whether that’s finding the moments across an architecture that are, across a building that allow for participatory designs that might mean facade design, that might mean kind of internal artwork in a building, that might mean the community spaces are culturally reverent versus architecturally simple to create, structurally simple to create. So, it might mean that we have this, and I say we, can you create a space that thinks about prayer circles or freedom circles or kind of native. So, like, again, the types of spaces that are created may shape and reflect the cultural resonance. So that’s another thing. And then I would say the other things are really about marginalized communities that often pops up. So, when we talk about non gendered restrooms, right? So that is a touchy subject in every project that we do. But having those conversations brings to bear a lot of conversations. And so, while a client may want to approach it in that particular way, and we might as a design team, when we hear some of the religious entities who are a part of these spaces say, Well, while we want to make sure that other folks feel comfortable, we also know that our kind of religious background doesn’t allow us to operate in this particular way. And so can you also accommodate us as well? And so, it means that you shape the restrooms a little differently. You don’t have all kind of non-gendered restrooms, but you have spaces that other people can use based on their own principles and values.
Eve: [00:22:51] So there are other stakeholders like the city and funders and. What do they have to say about this process?
Bryan: [00:23:00] The city loves it because the city is, oftentimes is directly accountable to the to those stakeholders, to the neighborhoods. Right. Those are the people who are going to show up at the doorstep if they don’t if they don’t listen to them. So, the city views it as a tool to accommodate the conversations that they would otherwise not be able to have. I don’t often care about what funders have to say about anything. You know, I think mostly those conversations are wrapped around a, it’s choosing the appropriate clients. So, I would say I don’t care what funders say that are in opposition to to considering the voice of community. So, we wouldn’t work for them in the first place. But the developers that we often work with or the clients that we often work with are usually institutions or other non-profits who actively want to understand the impact of their work on a larger community. And so, they are they are pre invested in this type of work in the first place.
Eve: [00:24:10] So what kind of architecture would actively dismantle barriers and make buildings more equitable?
Bryan: [00:24:17] Yeah. So, part of the kind of continuum that we think about in architecture or at least in design justice reflects on what liberation looks like in this work. And so, what that really means for us is that we have to reflect and dismantle past structural systems that have implications on the current policies, procedures and practices within our own, within our own realm. So, we have to kind of think about those structural systems before an architecture can even come to be, because systems are created for a reason. They’re created so that the outputs of those systems are consistent, that they don’t have to worry about the outputs diverging too much from the standard. So, first things first is acknowledging and understanding those systems. The second thing is to make things fair or accountable in the present. So that really just means that we want to make sure that whatever architecture we produce has a mutual, a mutual aid about it. Right. Meaning that there are no private properties, even if there are, everything’s private, even if it’s privately owned, whatever property exists for a developer or a client or institution, it abuts or is adjacent to a partner, to someone else, to a community. And so, we thusly have a responsibility to those partners. The third thing is, can we create spaces that are fundamentally about future setting? And so, when I say future setting, that might mean that we have to rethink or recalibrate the typologies of space that are better informed by cultural, social, racial communities. So, meaning we acknowledge that redlining has had a tremendous effect on black and brown communities across the entire country, and it drives even current gentrification processes.
Bryan: [00:26:19] We also acknowledge that policies that exist in a lot of cities restrict the square footage of housing that can go on any given site, restrict the density within places. All of those things are often and were often developed as a means to negate or to push out black, brown, BIPOC communities more generally. And so, it really is both challenging those policies and procedures, but then taking that as an opportunity with community to redevelop or to develop new ideas about how we can exist in space. What new spaces should exist on the other side of abolition of prisons? Because it’s not as though we’re not still going to have issues and communities. And I don’t think anyone’s ever said that even in the defund world, it is always to say, can we create new spaces that serve our community a little bit better? When we talk about housing and affordable housing and we drive so much of our housing propositions on area median income, that negates the fact that wealth was stripped from so many communities for the last 100 years, 150, 250 years. Right. So depending on what timeline you want to use. And so, it means changing a policy around income so that we can actually develop a housing stock or a housing typology that recognizes that wealth discrepancy.
Eve: [00:27:57] And I mean, you know what the architecture profession is like. It has a very small minority population. Right. So, you know, given that, how do you see the role of racism and race as influencing contemporary architecture?
Bryan: [00:28:18] Yeah. I mean, I think it’s substantial because we are often conduits of power. We are reflecting the will and the needs of our clients and the will and the needs of those clients who have the money that’s available to build architecture at that scale is often conservative, is often coming from a different specific perspective. When I say conservative, not from the political lens, but.
Eve: [00:28:50] No, I, the industry is very monoculture and.
Bryan: [00:28:54] Yeah, precisely.
Eve: [00:28:55] And, in many ways beyond architecture.
Bryan: [00:28:57] Yeah. And so, I think that those, the values there are then reflected. We often say in our work that our values are validated through the spaces and places we design. And so, if a history of racialized spatial violence as it still exists, who’s to say that those principles of practice don’t still permeate through the architecture that we design? Because those are the rules. That’s the system that we’ve created. Even thinking about the kind of growth of modernist design in a way that and even super modernist design that that starts to think and postmodernism starting to think about an architecture that disassociates itself from its cultural implications means that you’re valuing an architecture that does not reflect other types of cultures. Right. Because it’s ornamental or it’s extra. And therein lies so much of what other communities who haven’t had the opportunity to shape their environments find valuable. I mean, we talk often about the reason that so many black and brown communities have a lot of murals and visuals in that particular nature. But we don’t have a significant home ownership ratio. We don’t have, we haven’t been able to control the wider or broader landscape of neighborhoods in order to shape and self-determine those outcomes, which means that we use visuals, we use art, we use muralism we use a lot of those other expressions to put a fingerprint on the spaces we live in. And so, when the architecture doesn’t allow for that, when the architecture doesn’t allow for a cultural resonance to be prominent, then those values are validating one set of groups over the other.
Eve: [00:31:01] So is there a little bit, a little tiny glimmer of hope for you? You see any glimmers of hope, like anything changing over the last few years that have led you to sit up and say, oh, that’s interesting. That’s a shift going on.
Bryan: [00:31:15] Yeah. I mean, first of all, you know, a lot of this work came to be through another program or work that we did called design as protests. And one of the core definitions that we use during those workshops is to say that to protest is to have an unyielding faith in the power and potential of a just society. It is fundamentally about our collective hope, and if design at its best serves that same purpose, we have no choice but to be hopeful in a future that connects and serves the communities we serve. So yes, I am always hopeful. I don’t think we have a choice. But I’d also say that the things that give me hope, the least of which is our organization still being around. I mean, I think we knew that this was going to be a very difficult pitch but turns out it really isn’t. A lot of people have been clamoring for this type of work for a long time, but the architectural world has ignored it. And to that note, you see more and more RFPs that are popping up that call for critical race theory or design justice as a part of their core evaluation metrics. And I think going from three years ago, one project in the northwest that was maybe $32 million, something of that sort. There’s probably $2.8 million or $2.8 billion worth of work over the last four years in the northwest. That is leaning more towards this direction, that is looking at critical race theory and that is looking at design justice as a core component of their work. Interesting. And it’s huge. So, I am hopeful in the sense that I see clients and institutions shifting and demanding more of us. And the more that that happens, the more that we will hopefully do the work to meet them where they need to be or where they are.
Eve: [00:33:27] So I have one more question for you. Actually, a couple, but this one is what do you like best about the work you do?
Bryan: [00:33:37] Yeah, I love that question. I love people. I love the fact that we get to connect and work with communities over and over and over again. It’s the best part of our job is working with, let’s say, people say stakeholders or end users. But what I love about it is that I get to be in community daily and get to grow with people. That is not from a extractive perspective, not from a position of transaction. Right. And to build those relationships is amazing.
Eve: [00:34:12] Yes, I can see that. So, one final question and that is, what is your big, hairy audacious goal?
Bryan: [00:34:20] My audacious goal is to fundamentally shift the way that practice standardizes engagement and organizing into the work. And by that, I mean, can we stratify the profession. A) bringing in new community members who historically would not have an opportunity to be a part of the design profession. So, creating a community design advocate as a general role on all projects across the board, it would be to create and, continue to create and build out the processes for engagement that make it, not just the processes but the tools for engagement that make it infinitely easier for all firms to do it.
Eve: [00:35:13] Because it is hard.
Bryan: [00:35:15] It’s very, very, very hard work.
Eve: [00:35:17] Very hard. Yeah. Maybe harder than designing a building, right?
Bryan: [00:35:22] It’s very, very difficult work. I mean, a lot of it is just so much research, it’s qualitative. And to be able to summarize and think about those spatial implications is a design process unto itself. And so, if we can find and build out the Autodesk architectural suite, that is something comparable to that, that allows us to create the tools for people then generally, will make it more tempting for clients to demand that work in their process. And if we can do that, you entirely shift the field. So that’s the idea. That’s where we’re going. And it’s happening slowly.
Eve: [00:35:59] Well, thank you very much. I can’t wait to see the end result.
Bryan: [00:36:03] Yeah, no problem. Thank you for taking the time. I appreciate it.
Eve: [00:36:20] That was Bryan Lee, founder of Colloqate, and an architect pushing the traditional boundaries that the architect’s role into something far more significant.
Eve: [00:36:41] You can find out more about this episode or others you might have missed on the show notes page at our website RethinkRealEstateForGood.co. There’s lots to listen to there. A special thanks to David Allardice for his excellent editing of this podcast and original music, and thanks to you for spending your time with me today. We’ll talk again soon, but for now, this is Eve Picker signing off to go make some change
Image courtesy of Bryan Lee, Jr.