“Power & Place: Culture & Conflict in the Built Environment,” a required research and methodology course in the Master in Design Studies (MDes) program in Critical Conservation at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design fosters an exploration of urban ethics and an awareness of the political uses of history and identity. The course studies places where cultural conflict has emerged from both intended and unintended regulatory and spatial patterns of exclusion. A Critical Conservation Colloquia accompanies this course where lectures by eminent scholars bring the issues of their work to the topics explored each year. These talks, transcribed and illustrated can be found in the Power & Place booklets, produced each year to give a broader audience access to the ideas.

This course began as part of a wider GSD initiative in response to the rising evidence of discrimination and violence against the African American community that resulted in the fall 2015 Black in Design Conference. At that time, Dean Mohsen Mostafavi remarked that, “The relationship between race and space, the way in which one could say the racialization of space is becoming more extreme, is continuing. These issues have remained absolutely pertinent.” Critical Conservation is a natural center for this discussion because we focus on places where cultural conflict and the spatial patterns of exclusion such as historic districts and red-lining have suppressed racial, ethnic, economic and religious differences, leaving an indelible imprint on the material character of the city. The array of ideas and scholars brought together in on-site meetings and class discussions exemplifies the broader investigation that co-directors Susan Nigra Snyder and George E. Thomas are leading through the Critical Conservation research agenda.

The MDes program in Critical Conservation has been formed to shape a broader conversation about design and development that engages 21st century questions of environmental, social and economic sustainability to serve an ever more pluralist and global society. Critical Conservation explores how history and constructed narratives of heritage are used as instruments of power to control the identity of places and the subsequent inclusion and exclusion of populations these acts enable. The program makes clear that truly critical conservation is about social justice instead of being about buildings or places. Critical Conservation provides designers with a methodological foundation to research the cultural systems that frame conflicts inherent in making progressive places—the cultural ecology of place. It provides a theoretical understanding of the social construction of dynamic cultural meaning associated with places, artifacts, and history. The knowledge gained provides an understanding that decisions critical to place-making involving the uses of history and group identity demand that an ethical perspective be part of the design process.


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