The Annual International Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectural Design Excellence
Berkeley Prize 2024

[ID:1867] Positively Shaping Space: AIDS/Architecture/Awareness


‘We are experiencing a dawning recognition that while science constructs our reality, it can not deliver on its promise to save us from our human limitations. This is especially evident in cultural and political responses to AIDS…A progressive response to the HIV epidemic must engage inequalities on three levels: within the logics and administration of science and research agendas, within and between politically and socially constituted communities, and in the symbolic meanings and the lived experience of the HIV epidemic’

- Cindy Patton, AIDS activist and writer

‘We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us.’

- Winston Churchill

The HIV/AIDS epidemic is one of the defining social crisis of contemporary Canadian culture. As infection rates continue to rise, the framework through which we understand the disease continues to prove fatal: AIDS is often described as a condition localized to a specific race (Aboriginals), community of people (homosexuals), or economic class (lower income). These distinctions are divisive, and shift the responsibility of treatment and prevention from an inclusive global community onto the specific, often marginalized, demographic groups perceived to be most affected. Although demographic information is useful for understanding the spread of the illness at a given moment in time, long-term decision making based on this information inevitably proves fallacious – historically, AIDS has effortlessly slipped through culturally perceived barriers, breaking away from the initially affected demographics of homosexuals, hemophiliacs, and Hatians, to infect people from every community, creed, and class. It is for this reason that AIDS is not only a scientific crisis, but also a cultural crisis - the broader cultural framework developed to understand the disease often compounding the difficulties in eradicating the illness. As there is still no known cure, the best defense against HIV/AIDS is a culture of awareness (enabling prevention), and medically supervised treatment must be met with a culture of inclusion to ensure the continued quality of life for people with AIDS.

Visual representation has been used as a tool by the media, artists, and architects to constantly confront and redefine our cultural understanding of the illness since the disease was first discovered; using imagery, installation, and memorial, visual activists have challenged the broader cultural response to the disease, ending the initial ‘culture of silence’ at the disease’s onslaught, and continuing to challenge the broader community to overcome the fear, stigma, and misconceptions that plague our understanding of the disease. In Toronto, Canada’s largest city, the AIDS Memorial at Cawthra Square park is a successful example of an architectural symbol shaping cultural response - built to counter the shame and stigma attached to dying of AIDS by providing a public space to openly grieve these losses, the memorial has embedded itself as an important point of reference in Toronto’s cultural response to AIDS. But the AIDS Memorial at Cawthra Square park was designed and built during a different era of the epidemic, and as the the current conditions of the AIDS epidemic reveal a new set of problems at this time, it is again necessary to re-imagine this form of built communication. Architects must be at the forefront of this effort, as architecture plays a powerful role in shaping the collective consciousness, creating the spaces where we live our lives and the physical manifestations that express our cultural values. The AIDS Memorial is the only dedicated built artifact designed to respond to the cultural conditions of HIV/AIDS in Toronto. Each additional artifact will contribute to a progressive cultural response to the epidemic, enriched not only by visually keeping the urgency of the illness alive, but also with the opportunity to play a vital programmatic function (service centre, food bank, etc.) that can help people living with AIDS. Writ large, the buildings will say: The disease is still here, there is still work to be done and here is where that work is happening. Starting locally, a student design competition will explore the potential of one of these artifacts; growing further, a new wave of visual activism will emerge. As I live in Toronto, that is the locale that I will use for this essay - but the proposition is not limited to one city or one building, and should be transplanted to other regions of Canada to signify a powerful national effort.

I have walked through Toronto’s park at Cawthra Square many times. Adjacent to the city’s vibrant Church-Wellesley village and a short walk from the apartment I share with my partner, the park has been a valuable amenity to me. A rare moment of respite in an otherwise densely built-up area, the park attracts a diverse group of users: people walking dogs, families playing on the playground, gay couples out on dates, people cruising, homeless sitting on the benches near the park’s entrance. As a backdrop to this is the park's most striking feature. Known simply as the AIDS Memorial, it is adjacent to the main walking path. Comprised of 14 concrete pillars arranged along an arc-shaped hillock, on each pillar is mounted a stainless steel plaque inscribed with names of people who have died of AIDS, listed under a year of death. The dates range from 1981 to the present, where blank space is left as an ominous albeit reasonable predication that more names will be added this year, and in the years to come. Ever unfinished, this helps to keep the urgency alive by saying: People are still dying, do not forget this crisis.

More people are living with HIV/AIDS than ever before in Canada’s history (not to mention the world at large). The total number of prevalent cases has dramatically risen in the last nine years as new treatments mean that people with HIV/AIDS are living much longer, and new infections continue to increase across a broad range of demographic groups, (HIV/AIDS Epi Update 2007, prepared by the Public Health Agency of Canada). But meeting these demands is a culture of complacencey, 'confirmed in a survey completed early in 2003. Most Canadians do not consider themselves at significant risk for HIV infection, and one person in five believes that AIDS can be cured if treated early…almost half of Canadians believe that people living with HIV/AIDS should not be allowed to work in public positions,’ (from Looking Forward: Focusing the Response, Canada’s Report on HIV/AIDS 2003). A critical part of the response should be long-term dedicated spaces that facilitate a variety of programs for a cross section of people – what is needed is public space where the complacency will be confronted with the hum and werr of people working for a common cause, that bears a physical manifestation that screams: HIV/AIDS is here, HIV/AIDS is a long-term problem, a problem all of us to pay attention – inside is where you can get help, inside is where you can give help.

Each time that I stop at the AIDS Memorial I read Michael Lynch’s poem, ‘Cry,’ inscribed on the first of the stainless steel plaques:

Morning through a city garden widens

its swath. Shiny eyes of cinquefoil,

azure eyes of myosotis, bruised lobelia refuse to blink…

cities are our gardens, with their stench

and contagion and rage, our memory, our

sepals that will not endure

these waves of dying friends

without a cry.

Written by Michael Lynch, the AIDS activist whose idea it was to build the AIDS Memorial, the poem underscores Lynch’s idea that the city, through its diverse population and interconnected communities, is a powerful place to ‘seed’ a culture of support for the fight against HIV/AIDS. At the time of the memorial’s conception however, in the late 1980s, the social conditions in the city were not as cultivated– the disease was shrouded in silence, people left to suffer in shame. Built at a public scale, Lynch wanted the memorial to help end the stigma by giving ‘a focus for personal and public grief. It counters the silencing and the denial, the isolation and rejection, that so often marks the experience of PLWAS [people living with AIDS]… Its identifiable presence contributes directly to the communal awareness that is necessary to lessen the sufferings ahead for many people. Unlike a war memorial… an AIDS memorial will do its services even in the thick of the epidemic...the Memorial thus helps bring it to an earlier end,’ (from Ann Silversides’ Michael Lynch and the Politics of Community). But in its singularity, the memorial lacks the scale necessary for an even broader outreach; and serving a relatively symbolic function, the monument misses the opportunity to directly help the day-to-day issues ( the financial burdens, counseling needs, and health problems) of people with AIDS. The provocation to do more with the built medium has already been written in the form of a poem by Shoshanna Jey Addley, ‘Circle of Stones’ added in 1995 to the AIDS Memorial at Cawthra Square on one of the stainless steel plaques:

‘How tall will these stones have to grow? How wide, how all encompassing,

how awesome?..

To announce this radical interruption in humanity...

Further stones planted, the last meets the first; A circle is formed.

Its volume gains inhabitants; Admitting entrance without discrimination.’

This provocation underscores the potential to unify a cause through physical manifestations – first in one location (one building), added to over time with new manfiestations to suggest a massive scale - a national or even a global scale - wherein the urgency is undeniable, the sense of inclusion awesome. In Toronto, although there are many community service organizations whose main agenda is HIV/AIDS service work, most work out of leased office space, and many are seemingly fragmented by focusing on the needs of one specific demographic group. A competition to design a dedicated built space around the program of several of these organizations would bring the valuable work of all of these organizations to the fore of our collective consciousness by suggesting the provision of a valuable public amenity for people with HIV/AIDS. This would not only a powerful visual focal point but a place to network ideas and resources between the different community service organizations – so that as each organization works on addressing the specific needs of their respective community-group, the organizations can collaborate on broader-reaching comprehensive strategies.

The competition will be framed around a space for a collection of service organizations to bring together the complex needs of their combined programs into one powerful space. Potential service groups include: Toronto People with AIDS foundation, Alliance for South Asian AIDS Prevention, or the Canadian AIDS Treatment Information Exchange, representing a diversity in programs that includes counseling services, a food bank, a library, and a nutritional information centre. Though a site has not been established, the following criteria must be met: The site must be in a central part of the city to be easily accessible by all methods of transportation, be large enough to provide a mix of public and private spaces both inside and outside to welcome both people with HIV/AIDS, as well as anyone who just so happens to walk-by, sit near, or stroll through it. The site must also be central to where the specific service organizations are currently located, to not disfranchise any current users. Although Cawthra Square is a compelling site, adding another artifact so close would diminish the scale that two artifacts working together in different locations would reach.

The initial design competition will be called: Positively Shaping Space. Competitions are an excellent way to explore and expand on new ideas in design, and in the case of designing for HIV/AIDS, provide a way to test new ideas in this relatively unexplored but highly complex area. Organized though the University Of Waterloo School Of Architecture, by running the competition through a university an academic approach can be taken to spearhead the investigation, and record the observations and discoveries that come out of it. To further this goal, the competition will not only be competitive, but run as a term-long elective for upper-year undergraduate students, enriching the competitive aspects of the design with research and learning objectives. Although the elective will be open to other disciplines in order to enrich the discussions around the issues, it will primarily be an architectural elective, so it must be understood that in order to participate, students from other disciplines will work with architecture students in order to ultimately develop a design proposal.

The competition will be structured to take place over several phases – the first phase will be a brief research and seminar phase, including a site visit, visits to the current spaces occupied by the various service groups, and informal discussions with potential users of the new space (people living with HIV/AIDS). This will lead into a charette phase, where ideas will be generated quickly then critiqued to give an over-all shape to the term long projects, and the students a clear idea of where they want their investigations to go. Although the site and overall program will be common among all participants, variety in responses will be encouraged. The next phase will be a more in-depth research and studio phase, where the students will be encouraged through desk critiques, user-group seminars, and feedback from members of the various service organizations to explore their ideas not only through conceptual modeling and drawing, but also through community with specific user groups to try and directly meet their programmatic needs. This will be followed by a formal design review, where students will be asked to present their finished designs, as well as submit a written component that summarizes the project intent and any critical findings. After this, the academic portion of the elective will be over. Students will then be given two weeks to prepare formal competition entries of an agreed upon format, which will then be submitted to a distinguished third-party jury.

At the end of the competition, a public event will be held on the competition site, wherein all the designs will be displayed, and the winning entries revealed. The event will temporarily transform the space in the spirit of creating visibility for HIV/AIDS, and will show the potential of dedicated, culturally inclusive buildings for HIV/AIDS services to the general public. Afterwards, the lessons learned in running through running the competition will be expanded to similar future initiatives – both at the Univeristy of Waterloo, and other schools across Canada, creating a series of regional responses to a national problem, creating a national awareness to contribute to a broader global crisis, and establishing a new generation of visual activists.

An awesome scale, this circle of stones

From one stone I can not see the next.

It takes faith to know they are all there, holding the path.

This is a broad land, the path is winding.

I have walked between them once, the stones,

And met people on my way,

Saw trees too, and mountains and water and sky,

The people gave me comfort, the stones a sense of place.

I cannot walk that path again, it is too broad,

But at this the last of them I’ve been happiest –

It signifies a place of peace,

It tells me that I’m home.

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