Syracuse University Magazine


Lori Brown

Activist Architect

Lori Brown wants something more and something better for architects and architecture—for her students, her colleagues, herself, and those they serve—and she’s pushing mightily in diverse directions to incite change within the academic discipline and across the profession at large. “As a student in the late ’80s and early ’90s, I had such a naïve idea—a narrow picture—about what architecture was supposed to do,” says Brown, a School of Architecture faculty member whose work bridges architecture, feminism, and political activism. “The educational model then was scripted by the mentality of a lone genius working away in the studio, creating beautiful drawings and models that someone else would then be building. That kind of model is just not going to move us forward.”

Brown’s vision, by contrast, places architects smack in the middle of everyday life, tackling contemporary issues and contributing to real-world concerns. Her own teaching, research, writing, and design work offer a rich demonstration of doing just that, often focusing on the relationships between architecture and matters of social justice, particularly those affecting women. For example, she served as project architect on renovations at the Vera House women’s shelter in Syracuse, collaborated with a Turkish colleague to investigate women’s shelters in Turkey, and conducted an intensive study of abortion clinics in North America that resulted in her book, Contested Spaces: Abortion Clinics, Women’s Shelters and Hospitals (Ashgate, 2013). “There is a whole array of spaces that architects don’t typically work on, and our built environment is suffering as a result of architecture not being more engaged,” says Brown, who earned a bachelor’s degree in architecture from the Georgia Institute of Technology and an M.Arch degree from Princeton University. “So I want to—and I do—put pressure on the discipline to think about these things, because I believe it’s incredibly important.”

Another central aspect of Brown’s work is her desire to reclaim and redefine the word “feminism” as a matter of global concern rather than being an issue relevant to women only. “It’s really about justice and about equity at large,” she says, pointing to “abysmal” work practices, low pay, and a low work/life balance for architects. While these conditions are of concern for everyone in the profession, they disproportionally affect women and minorities. “What kind of things can we put in place to help push and encourage the discipline and the educational system to evolve more quickly?” Brown says. “How can we create a more equitable practice of architecture and a more equitable built environment?”

As part of her efforts to provide answers to these questions, Brown organized, curated, and participated in feminist practices, a traveling exhibition that evolved into a book, Feminist Practices: Interdisciplinary Approaches to Women in Architecture (Ashgate, 2011). Both showcase an international group of women designers and architects whose work features feminist methodologies and challenges conventional ideas about architecture. She also co-founded and co-leads ArchiteXX, an organization that works to bridge the academy and practice and provides mentoring opportunities for women and minority architects in New York City. At SU, Brown is reinstituting the Women in Design student group, hoping to empower students to use their voices to begin to effect change while still in school. “Helping students understand the larger picture is critical, or they won’t be prepared for the reality of the inequities of the professional environment,” she says. “It’s very important to educate up-and-coming architects to think about these things in a more conscious way so, hopefully, the practice of architecture becomes more equitable and there are women, as equally as men, designing our built environment. That’s not the case right now.” —Amy Speach 

Photo by Peter Bennetts