By Tomas Weber  Illustration by Hanna Barczyk

Architecture and environmental studies professor Giuseppina Forte helps students consider and design spaces that embody ecological and social justice.

Architecture, in Giuseppina Forte’s view, is about much more than buildings. And it’s too important to leave exclusively to architects.

The built environment plays a critical role in shaping our identities and how we coexist, says Forte, who came to Williams in 2022 as an assistant professor of architecture and environmental studies—the first such position at the college. “The design disciplines can help transition us into a better world,” she says—one that is more equitable, sustainable and just—by involving local communities at every step of the process.

That is the vision behind Forte’s two fall courses, now in their second year: Governing Cities by Design and Design for the Pluriverse.

In the seminar Governing Cities by Design: The Built Environment as a Technology of Space, Forte’s students learn how 19th-century government officials engineered cities to influence citizens’ practices in using space. In Paris, for example, large boulevards were constructed in the city center to make it easier for the army to quell popular uprisings and promote the efficient flow of people, capital and goods. Poor people were displaced to the outskirts of the city. Other top-down, capital-driven conceptions of urban design shaped American cities like New York and Chicago, and the practice took off around the world.

As part of the course, Forte and her students visit sites around Williamstown. With her guidance, they start to see how even well-intentioned urban design can exclude people. They notice the difficulty that people with disabilities might face accessing forest trails, say, or the lack of street art in the town—a hint that creativity is restricted to galleries, studios and museums. “I teach students to become more aware of the space they inhabit,” she says.

In the tutorial Design for the Pluriverse: Architecture, Urban Design and Difference, Forte’s students explore how design can be reimagined as an inclusive, grassroots practice. The “pluriverse,” Forte says, describes how the world is composed of diverse ways of being. It’s a way of rethinking design that informs Embodying Peripheries, a volume of essays co-edited by Forte and published by Firenze University Press last year.

One course assignment involves designing and building an architectural installation on campus. Students create a space at the intersection of art and architecture that remains open to interpretation—a space that is attentive to and that helps nurture a plurality of ways of being. The design process is meant to be democratic and participatory, and the construction materials are expected to be sustainable.

“By bringing together art, architecture and environmental studies, the project will offer a unique aesthetic experience that can reorient public imagination around sustainability and social justice issues,” Forte says.

While completing her doctorate at the University of California, Berkeley, Forte spent time in Brazil as a Fulbright-Hays fellow and visiting researcher at the University of São Paulo. There she saw firsthand how urban designers attempted to consider the views of marginalized people in a city where one-third of the population lives in inadequate housing conditions, often lacking access to basic infrastructure. In the absence of democratically designed methods, Forte found that public participation often became a procedural obligation. Ultimately, low-income people in São Paulo had minimal influence on the current design of their city, she says.

Still, designing for everybody presents certain inherent difficulties, Forte says. A visually stimulating exhibit may work for deaf people, for example, but if it also has lots of auditory elements, it might be inaccessible to those who are highly sensitive to auditory stimuli. “Keeping a space open to everyone is very hard,” she says. “Space is always contested.”

Instead of a proverbial “public participation” box to be checked, designing for the pluriverse, for Forte, means thinking very deeply about how a space will be experienced by the people who will occupy it. And architects must recognize that a space will always be experienced in different ways by different people. Democratic design “is a horizon,” she says. “It forces us to think about different end users, and not only think, but to involve them.”

Tomas Weber is a London-based writer whose work has been published in The Economist’s “1843 magazine,” WIRED, Smithsonian Magazine, The Guardian, Artforum, ArtReview and Frieze.
Hanna Barczyk is a German/Canadian illustrator and visual artist who creates conceptual illustrations for major news publications, book covers, film posters and murals.