e-SPAN v026 | Architecture & Social Justice

Construction site for a future comedor (dining hall)

Dear School of Architecture Community,

When I arrived at Carnegie Mellon in August of 2020, one of the first tasks faculty put on my agenda was to restart our UDream program. Supported by the Heinz Endowments, the program originally ran for nine years (2009-2018) with the aim of increasing the diversity of professionals in the architecture and urban design fields in Pittsburgh and throughout the US. It was hugely successful and in 2015 was honored by the AIA’s National Diversity Recognition Program

I'm pleased to announce that, this summer, we will be relaunching UDream with support from CMU, the College of Fine Arts, and the Heinz Endowments. This relaunch is vital to the school's mission to be a leader in diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) by prioritizing social justice in our teaching and research.

Social justice in the built environment begins with the recognition that we, as architects and designers, need to focus our creativity on the needs of the global majority. This population has benefited too little from the digital revolution and the last few decades’ global architecture. The global majority is not geographically isolated but located everywhere: in cities, rural areas, and migrant communities. Members of the global majority will be highly affected by climate change and need a more just built environment that provides shelter, accessibility, health and safety. Our challenge as a school is to reflect the perspectives of the global majority in our teaching and research. We are reworking our pedagogies to promote collaboration with—not extraction from—communities of the global majority.

It is not only our teaching methods, though, but also the people in the room that help us change the conversation. Architecture schools must both recruit and support students and faculty from diverse economic, racial, ethnic and gender backgrounds. As we foster UDream, Pre-College and our youth programs, we are also concurrently developing “scaffolds” that can provide students with financial and mentoring support. 

We have been fortunate to fund such support through alumnus Paul Jacob (B.Arch ‘72) and his wife Ria Jacob, who have helped establish the Jacob Family Endowed Fund for Diversity in Architecture. The fund has allowed us to proceed with our plans to put these organizational supports in place. You can read more about how Paul and Ria’s interests align with the school’s motivations for greater diversity and inclusion in the architecture profession in the CFA Magazine’s recent Building Equity feature. If you are interested in supporting this or similar efforts, please do reach out to me.

We have just returned to campus from spring break, and students and faculty are hard at work. Two courses this semester are exploring issues of social justice and community engagement in particularly unique ways. In one, a Master of Urban Design studio, students are working locally with the South Braddock community; in the other, undergraduate and graduate students are collaborating with village communities in Nepal. These courses highlight the concerns of the global majority and provide our students crucial opportunities to work in collaboration with communities to address climate and social injustices. We are highly encouraged by our faculty’s ability to take on these complex subjects with intelligence and creativity.

Finally, I hope to see some of you at this year’s Spring Carnival, which will feature a bamboo entryway pavilion designed and built by the School of Architecture’s NOMAS chapter. Come celebrate the students’ innovative work and meet them, faculty and other alumni at the dedication event on Saturday, April 15, from 1:00 to 2:30 in the afternoon.

As ever, please stay in touch, and let us know whom we should profile next.

Omar Khan
Head of School


Justice in Everyday Practice: Nina Barbuto, B.Arch ‘07

Nina Barbuto (B.Arch ‘07) urges all architects to build their social consciousness and integrate justice work into their everyday practice. 

Asked how architects and designers are especially well suited to engage in work for social justice, Barbuto answers with the depth and nuance of someone who considers this question daily. “As architects we are trained to see the invisible,” she says, “to look through walls, to observe and map systems and the forces that foster, advise, or hinder our movements through the world.” 

In an era when numerous cultural frameworks are undergoing long-needed review, this kind of systems-thinking is crucial. According to Barbuto, architects and designers share the responsibility and opportunity to apply their disciplinary skills to social analysis, insight, and change. “Not only are architects prepared to dive into understanding systems, including systems of oppression; we’re also prepared to collectively reimagine them. Architects can bring people together, facilitate community expression. We can provide the service of working alongside a community to visualize the future we’re imagining together.”

Barbuto is careful to note that seeing themselves as community facilitators is a conscious choice for architects—and sometimes a difficult one. “It takes decentering how we feel or what we think, and centering people who have not historically been centered in design processes.”

Barbuto’s own career, while initially circuitous, has always been marked by a commitment to work in, be curious about, and create egalitarian spaces. After completing her B.Arch at CMU, she earned a Master of Architecture degree in SciArc’s MediaScapes program, where she studied symbiotic architecture—as she puts it, “speculative design stuff.”

After completion of her master’s degree, she grounded that speculation in work with the Los Angeles Unified School District, considering how to redesign learning environments to accommodate new learning technologies. During that period, Barbuto also worked with a class of sixth-grade students at George Washington Carver Middle School in South Central Los Angeles. Together they practiced turning their dreams into designs for the classroom of the future. “We started not with where we were, but with what we wanted to see; it was a way of declining to accept the world as it was,” she says. “We utilized architecture as a means of imagining what could be.”

Barbuto carried the middle schoolers’ wisdom with her after returning to Pittsburgh in 2010. It was a particularly hard time for creative professionals, who had completed their education with the expectation of fulfilling work and a living wage. In the recession, she says, “all these institutions we’d trusted had failed us; all the opportunities we’d been promised had fallen apart.” 

She recognized a need for shared social learning and reimagination–the kind she’d seen at Los Angeles’s Machine Project, or with her sixth-graders at Carver Middle School. So, in 2011, with a team of volunteers (including some SoA faculty), she started Assemble, a community space to gather, share design knowledge, and make the future.

Twelve years later, Assemble is a bustling nonprofit education organization and space for learners of all types to engage with science, technology, engineering, art, and math activities. Barbuto and her ever-growing team run a range of after-school programs, themed design classes, summer camps, drop-in “crafternoons,” and maker events for groups of all ages and sizes, both at their Garfield studio/gallery space and throughout the city.

“Our project-based learning approach is basically just architecture school,” she laughs, “minus the guilt and the sleepless nights.”

Barbuto’s entire career is dedicated to finding and expanding the overlaps between design and justice. But she’s adamant: you don’t have to be in the nonprofit world to use design as a tool for equity. SoA students can join or support the work of NOMAS, volunteer with local nonprofits, attend community meetings about proposed development in East Liberty and other neighborhoods, or work with Assemble.

She recommends that students and practicing architects alike extend the principles of Universal Design beyond the physical to the social. “We understand that, physically, we’re no longer designing for Corbusier’s ‘Modulor Man’; design for the dominant doesn’t serve everyone. If you work to design for someone who’s existing in this world under the most oppressive factors, you’re better able to design something that works for everybody. But that’s a conscious choice.”

And how can architects increase their awareness of the “oppressive factors” that cause social injustices? Barbuto suggests a range of resources (listed below) and stresses that involvement in social justice work is a constant iterative process.

“We have to think at all scales: intrapersonal, interpersonal, organizational, systemic. We must be constantly learning, checking in with ourselves, reminding ourselves that our default is to repeat what our grandparents and parents did, even if we may not believe those practices are best. We have to continue doing the hardest, most personal work; it’s the only way to build a foundation for working with others, for making change within our own organizations, and for diving into major systems without being totally overwhelmed. Remember, change is a creative process!”

Barbuto recommends the following resources for architects and students interested in increasing their engagement with social justice work:

Resources for learning about white supremacy, social justice, and strategy for change

Card decks for use in the classroom, studio, or office

Local options for recent graduates seeking nonprofit work


Social Justice Comes in Many Forms: Paúl Moscoso Riofrío, MUD ‘18

Paúl Moscoso Riofrío (MUD ‘18), is proof that work for social justice comes in many forms—sometimes all in one career. 

Currently based in San Diego, Moscoso Riofrío engages in design and justice work throughout the world. He is the Director of Architecture for his family’s firm, Moscoso Arquitectos, in Cuenca, Ecuador. With partners in the Netherlands, he is cofounder of Huasipichanga, an urban design consulting firm currently working with municipalities in both Latin America and Southeast Asia to implement safety policies in urban spaces. And he spends most of his time as an urban researcher and architectural designer in the University of California San Diego’s Center on Global Justice, where he leads both programmatic and design elements of the Center’s Community Stations project.

That project comprises four sites—two in San Diego and two in Tijuana—where migrants, community members, and UCSD personnel collaborate to find cross-border solutions to environmental and social challenges. This work is happening in one of the world’s most inequitable places. Moscoso Riofrío notes that, while UCSD sits in one of the highest-income zip codes in the United States, “just minutes away, across the US–Mexico border, we find some of the most precarious conditions experienced by human beings.” 

The Center on Global Justice seeks to redress these conditions by circulating UCSD’s resources (finances, students, and faculty) through innovative community stations seeking to restore local watersheds through hands-on learning, design a mixed-use affordable social housing project, build radically inclusive emergency housing, and create mixed-use civic spaces for education, conservation, and economic incubation. Paul travels among the four stations, working alongside both new and longstanding community members to address the needs they have identified. 

Despite holding two architecture degrees, he finds that he still has quite a bit to learn—and that adopting a learning posture can be difficult. “We as architects certainly bring our disciplinary knowledge and experience to each project. But sometimes we carry baggage, like our aesthetic taste, that can get in the way of genuine collaboration.”

“Trying to practice social justice in architecture,” he continues, “can mean trying to work together, in space and time, with a migrant from South America, who has crossed Panama’s Darién Gap, traveled all the way through Mexico to Tijuana, and has an enormous amount of knowledge and experience that I don’t have. It means working together to make design decisions, discovering each other’s knowledge.”

While Moscoso Riofrío’s daily practice ensures that he’s never without opportunities for this kind of collaboration, he insists that all architects can learn these principles—and that CMU’s School of Architecture is an excellent place to become fluent in them.

Having completed a bachelor’s degree at Ecuador’s Universidad de Cuenca, Moscoso Riofrío received a Fulbright Scholarship to study further. He chose to join SoA’s Master of Urban Design (MUD) program, drawn by its strong international reputation. 

Studying with Don Carter and Stefan Gruber, among others, he was surprised and pleased to learn an entire spectrum of approaches to urbanism and urban design. And he was astonished by the resources and support he received at SoA for his socially conscious projects. “‘If you want to do something,’” he remembers his professors saying, “‘we’ll find a way to do it.’” 

Moscoso Riofrío’s advice to both current architecture students and practitioners seeking to deploy architecture as a tool for social justice is to maintain that same agile optimism. Ask questions, seek multiple avenues for action, and be willing to start small. “Think outside the box; remember that there’s always another way to solve a problem; ask questions and enact inquiry. You have to be flexible enough to compromise. You may have to build little by little, choosing one small topic to focus on at a time.”

The last might sound strange from someone whose schedule is packed with enormous design-justice projects. He, though, insists on two truths: no two designers work for social justice in the same way, and every architect can work for justice.

“Perhaps you leave CMU and go to work for a major firm. Or perhaps you come from an affluent family with clear expectations for the kind of work you’ll do after school. Regardless of where you work, you can always find one element of a project that could be more equitable, or more ecologically sound. It’s not all or nothing. Your CMU education is prestigious and respected: you can derive profit from the work and give back to the community.”

Moscoso Riofrío is grateful to have found co-conspirators like Fonna Forman and Teddy Cruz, directors of the Center on Global Justice, as well as his MUD faculty and fellow alumni. Surrounding yourself with people from whom you can learn, he says, is essential.

And the work that results is both profoundly effective and profoundly rewarding.

“I do this kind of work in order to advance what I like best about architecture. Architecture doesn’t merely put a roof over people’s heads to protect them from the rain, but also changes their lives. Choosing to design for social justice is a long-term commitment, and that’s very powerful.”


Student & Faculty Work in Social Justice at the School of Architecture

Material Transition and its Socio-cultural Impact: The Case of Azad Kashmir

Kashmala Imtiaz (M.Arch ‘22)
Advisors: Stefan Gruber, Jonathan Kline

This project explores the ecological and socio-cultural impact of building materials and loss of rituals, crafts, and vernacular architectural practices in the region of Azad Kashmir. It argues that current modern building practices and development patterns are reinforcing social and gender inequalities, as well as environmental and cultural degradation. A project for the Derek Women Organization puts forward a framework to advocate for the use of vernacular construction methods and materials as part of a circular economy.

The Shape of Power 

Schuyler McAuliffe (MUD ’23, M.Arch ’22)
Advisors: Stefan Gruber, Jonathan Kline

The Shape of Power investigates the concentrated corporate and political power that entrench Southwestern Pennsylvania’s communities in a future of capital and carbon debt. It envisions a transition towards energy sovereignty by proposing a Community Power Trust that combines cooperative housing, community-owned energy infrastructure through solar development, and a commitment to living within planetary boundaries based on the 2000-Watt Society model.

Learning from South America’s Cooperative Housing and Alternative Economies

Commoning the City Studio Fall 2022
Advisors: Stefan Gruber, Jonathan Kline

In the Fall of 2022, the Master of Urban Design studio traveled to Montevideo, Uruguay and Buenos Aires, Argentina to study how cooperative housing and workers-owned businesses are building more equitable and resilient communities. In collaboration with local universities, the studio did field work on twelve case studies that are featured in the traveling exhibition “An Atlas of Commoning.” The research is a testimony to the social innovation and design ingenuity that emerge from so-called informality and challenge notions of “development.”

Alumni News & Updates

To have your alumni news featured, please email Kristen Frambes at kframbes@andrew.cmu.edu with a brief description and link to more information.

Maureen Guttman, FAIA (B.Arch ‘81) and Andrea Love, AIA, LEED Fellow (B.Arch ‘02) have been elected to the AIA’s class of 2023 College of Fellows. Fellowship is one of AIA's highest honors, and it recognizes the exceptional work and contributions of AIA members who are elected through a rigorous process by a jury of their peers.

Dr. Bobuchi Ken-Opurum, ENV SP (PhD-AECM ‘22) has been named to the Tartans on the Rise Class of 2023. Tartans on the Rise celebrates recent alumni who are making an impact in their organizations and in their communities, across the nation and around the world through leadership, innovation and career achievements.

Aftyn Giles (B.Arch ‘07) was promoted to Principal Planner, Sustainability + Resilience at City of Pittsburgh's Department of City Planning, Division of Sustainability + Resilience.

Dr. Naim Jabbour, Assoc. AIA, LEED AP (DDes ‘22) was appointed for a one year term on the LEED Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Working Group, with the USGBC.