Brave, New World?
By R. Steven Lewis, FAIA, NOMAC

Brave, New World?
By R. Steven Lewis, FAIA, NOMAC

Beginning in early February, the Coronavirus arrived and turned our lives upside down. In a matter of weeks, we had to adapt our way of living, placing distance between each other to help stave-off the invisible scourge that continues to wage a deadly war on people across the globe. Then, on Tuesday, May 26th, George Floyd – a Black American man – was murdered by a self-righteous Minneapolis police officer, aided by three of his uniformed comrades, while the world watched in horror and disbelief. This time, our world changed in an instant.

While brother Floyd is the latest person to be added to the list of Black citizens to die at the hands, or in this case, the knee of out of control police, it is the graphic nature of how his death was captured and broadcast to the world that has ignited the powder keg of racism commonly referred to as America’s Original Sin. At this moment, we are a little better than a week into what appears to be a movement, with momentum, conviction, and an uncompromising, unapologetic agenda for ridding the society of the racism and white supremacy that has seemingly infiltrated the DNA of White America. However, the thousands of peaceful protestors filling the streets of cities throughout the country are unarguably diverse. When White people and Black people march together in solidarity and purpose, we build bridges that are genuine, sincere, trusted, and appreciated. This, hopefully, will be how we evolve to a better state.

The collective pain being experienced by so many here at home and more recently around the entire globe has been thoroughly documented and expressed in eloquent terms by those who have written articles, posted to social media sites, and appeared on television. There is little that I could add that has not already been said, and probably better than I could say it at this time when emotions potentially interfere with better judgement. So then, let me attempt to weave together the two concurrent pandemics that we are doing battle with – Covid-19 and systemic racism – into a way forward that offers a ray of hope.

In response to the Coronavirus, many within the design industry have been racing to be out in front of reimagining the world around us in ways that redefine, if not threaten the innate human need for connectivity that we all share. There are no shortage of voices prognosticating the end of society as we knew it, and forecasting a new normal where we all maintain social distancing, never again to shake hands with, or give hugs to the people we would have embraced only a few months ago. For those with a modicum of privilege, carrying on a lifestyle of separation, suspicion, and ongoing fear of catching the virus may be a choice some of us can make; however, many others of lesser means have no such luxury. Both here at home and around the globe, our brothers and sisters who are victims of poverty most often live in places where there is no escaping being bunched-up, shoulder-to-shoulder with family and coworkers. Many rely on mass-transit to make it to jobs – jobs that require working in close proximity to others. So, while we have options, they do not, and as a result, cannot escape he harsh consequences of density. If the killing of George Floyd is truly the tipping point for a collective rejection of centuries-old depravation of a people’s right to equality and equity, then it won’t have been in vain. The fact that people are out in the streets in huge numbers, often unable to observe physical distancing, thereby placing themselves and those around them at greater risk of exposure to the Coronavirus, accentuates the power of this moment to initiate meaningful change throughout society.

Back to the immediate response of the design community to develop best practices for altering our physical environment for the benefit of public health, safety, and welfare, I do not mean to discount efforts to innovate around ways to solve problems brought about by the pandemic. Quite to the contrary, it is only natural that allowing spaces we occupy – public, private, and semi-private – to evolve in response to sensible practices that most agree are necessary to protect us is how we move societies forward. As far as I’m concerned, our immediate need to isolate and take precautionary measures is or should be indisputable. By definition, I fall into the vulnerable class of citizens, given that I’m over 60 years old and have been a Type 1 (insulin-dependent) diabetic for 43 years. The morbid irony that I could literally die from a bag of sugar – not from consuming its contents, but by simply handling its packaging – is not lost on me. The fear seeded by the lack of clear and responsible leadership at the national level, and further cultivated by the constant barrage of media sensationalism can literally induce paralysis.

The principal question we must confront in the face of this cruel dual pandemic is how we, as a country, will proceed into the future? With so much division, aided by the politicization of practices that should be evidence-based, we must seek a way forward that elevates truth, science, and knowledge of our history above misguided concerns over infringement on individual rights and the resulting disregard for the health and safety of the majority of us who have opted for safety over selfishness. Combine these differences of perception with the undeniable revelation of the unfair treatment of Blacks throughout the society, in particular by police whose training and indoctrination relied on an old, racist playbook, has seemingly brought us to a place of acceptance of responsibility and commitment to change; however, it seems to me that charting a definitive course with so many unknowns at this time would be inappropriate. Rather, we should highlight the things we can all agree are common goals, if not rights as a point of departure for engaging in constructive conversations.

We have the right to:

1. promote good health for ourselves, our families, and our communities

2. peacefully assemble to demand social equality and equity

3. be able to earn a living and provide for our families

4. appreciate and enjoy the personal freedoms guaranteed by our Constitution

5. do unto others as we would have them do unto us

As humans, we must be willing to walk in each others’ shoes to attain greater understanding of what life is like for all of us in order to take an empathetic path forward to a more perfect society.

As design professionals operating in an increasingly cross-disciplinary way, we have opportunities to collaborate with doctors, healthcare professionals, and scientists on optimizing solutions to the challenge of how we stay safe while holding onto the most fundamental aspects of our humanity. In addition, if we claim our role as “citizen architects”, we can be at the forefront of mitigating the spatial and environmental disparities between “the haves and have-nots” that have been laid bare for all to see by this pandemic. We can and should be leading in what former Brownsville, Texas mayor, Tony Martinez characterized as the “Great Equalization Project”, which I believe has the potential to set us on a course that history will one day view as the pivotal moment that preserved the greatness of our nation.


R. Steven Lewis, FAIA, NOMAC is the 2016 Whitney M. Young Jr. Award Recipient