By Lainey Graham ’16 —— Photography by Josh Wilson

Reimagining our public and civic spaces takes on new shape in the School of Architecture’s Design Justice course

Nehemiah Ashford-Carroll on an orange couch in a campus building.

In February of 2020, Nehemiah Ashford-Carroll pushed his hands deep into the pockets of his winter coat, stepping off the white lines of a crowded intersection onto the smooth grey stones of his favorite plaza in Barcelona. The sound of cars accelerating behind him faded as he strolled closer to the city square, a public space surrounded by historic buildings and dotted with still-green palm trees, and his focus shifted from the motion of the cars behind him to the stillness of the structures ahead.

He was studying abroad, based at Clemson’s campus in Barcelona, and enjoying an afternoon walk in the city with one of the largest populations of architects per capita. He saw their influence at every turn and felt the warmth of the sun shining down into the space designed for the community to enjoy.

Ashford-Carroll recognized aspects of the plaza that echoed an architectural lesson taught by his professors. Historic and modern blocks in Barcelona are designed to give every person equal access to natural light, clean air and plumbing, amenities he took for granted growing up in Columbia, South Carolina.

“The best projects here involve public spaces,” he thought as he wandered closer to a four-tiered fountain rimmed with bench-height seating for locals and tourists alike. Then, he turned left and entered a centuries-old building, fully prepared to get lost in its design.

A portrait of architecture lecturer Clarissa Mendez.

An Architect’s Influence

Four months later and thousands of miles away, Ashford-Carroll sat in his childhood room on a Zoom call. One of his favorite architecture lecturers, Clarissa Mendez, was on the call along with a group of his fellow students. Together, they formed cNOMAS, Clemson’s chapter of the National Association of Minority Architecture Students, and they were discussing the murder of George Floyd.

“We had been working on a design competition for a few months, but with the murder of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and the riots, we began sharing our thoughts and feelings about what was going on and what we might be able to do at the University level,” recalls Ashford-Carroll.

As the group reflected on the protests and their ramifications for large cities, Ashford-Carroll couldn’t help but compare the community-centered Spanish plazas with the industrial, commerce-driven spaces often found in U.S. cities. How much, he wondered, did their design add to the friction and violence? And he landed on this question, “How can I create a better situation as an architect?”

“There is a way,” replied Mendez. “It’s called design justice.”

The class is divided into three segments: architecture and the body, architecture and the space, and architecture and the city.

What is design justice? “When architects work collaboratively, design becomes fairer,” Mendez explains. “When architecture includes more voices, design becomes more accessible to everyone.”

According to Mendez, design justice means overcoming the distance between users and architects. It requires architects to revisit their ethical responsibilities, considering their design process and the people involved in it.

“It means being aware of who the builders are, where materials are coming from and how they are transported to the site. It also means focusing on how our designs will change the world of people living in that site,” she says.

Mendez and a student in an architecture classroom.

When Mendez introduced this concept to the students of cNOMAS, they wanted to know more.

Together, cNOMAS and Mendez decided to pursue design justice. Michael Urueta ’20 M ’23, Bryan Hazel ’19 M ’21, Mohamed Fakhry M ’21, Adrianna Spence ’20 M ’22, Reginald “RJ” Wilson ’18 M ’23, Ashford-Carroll and Mendez wrote a data-driven assessment of the School of Architecture and a list of actionable steps to create a more equitable situation at Clemson. After presenting their findings to University leaders, faculty and alumni, they received unanimous support in bringing a new course to bear for the School of Architecture: Design Justice.

“From that point on, we [cNOMAS] were involved in the first meetings to decide what the course would include,” says Ashford-Carroll. The students brainstormed ideas for the course schedule, guest speakers they’d like to invite and topics they’d like to discuss.

“We all knew that the material taught would make each participant a more thoughtful designer,” says Urueta. “It was exciting to put our energy into developing a course that would have a positive impact on the next generation of designers.”

Mendez was elected faculty of record, and she set about curating information from her experiences growing up in Puerto Rico, then teaching in Turkey and the American South. She also identified experts in other areas, extending outside the School of Architecture, who could teach the students about the practicalities of design in construction, geography, culture and history. English professor Rhondda Thomas; rhetorics, communication and information design Ph.D. candidate Sheila Dodson; professional consultants; and multiple instructors, including Ashford-Carroll, have served as guest lecturers to date.

Design Justice began as a Creative Inquiry in fall 2020, then became an elective course in spring 2021.

Shots of Mendez and Ashford-Carroll beside architectural elements on campus.

Tackling Uncomfortable Realities

Assignments in the Design Justice course are challenging for students — and they’re supposed to be.

Students evaluate selected case studies and consider the impact architecture has on its surroundings and inhabitants — with open dialogues in class and through written assessments. Each class includes specific readings, and throughout the semester, students visualize their learnings in different formats, like collages, population migration maps and more.

Every student in Design Justice conducts their own research during the semester, culminating in a final paper on the area they investigated, which often serves as inspiration for future work. Ashford-Carroll used this opportunity to learn more about the concept of invisible architecture that he became aware of while studying abroad. Greg Ussery ’20 studied the displacement of Black communities and mapped their movement, diagramming their erasure by creating abstract digital models with graphic outlines of the original settlements and overlays of constructions that later replaced them.

The class itself is divided into three segments: architecture and the body, architecture and the space, and architecture and the city. “When we began formatting the course, we talked about how design affects everything in different scales,” says Mendez. “Dividing the class into three subjects with a gradual increase in their impact helped us categorize our topics, guest speakers and assignments.”

And there’s space in the schedule to spend time discussing current events related to architecture in each area.

Mendez encourages the class to prioritize accessibility, so each semester includes a lesson on ergonomic standards and how people with different types of bodies experience architectural design in the real world.

In February, two earthquakes of 7.8 and 7.5 magnitudes shook southern Turkey, and the spring semester students of Design Justice took a hard look at the disaster. The first earthquake was the most devastating hit the region had experienced in more than 20 years, shaking Gaziantep, where thousands of Syrian refugees and humanitarian aid workers reside.

As historic, new and temporary buildings collapsed, people of all ages were trapped. Tens of thousands perished, even more were injured and many survivors were left traumatized from the event as they continue to navigate around damaged buildings at high risk of collapse. The students examined building codes in the area along with population density.

“We know there are building codes in Turkey, and there are reasons why the codes were ignored by entities other than architects,” says Mendez. “We focused on how much damage occurred because, as architects, we have to understand that people can perish because of bad buildings.”

Then, the class discussed how to build safer cities in earthquake-prone areas and create safer temporary buildings in areas like northwest Syria, where, according to the Center for Disease Philanthropy, 4.1 million people depend on humanitarian assistance.

Mendez encourages the class to prioritize accessibility, so each semester includes a lesson on ergonomic standards and how people with different types of bodies experience architectural design in the real world. “Building design traditionally has been codified to focus on safety alone rather than looking at equitable experiences for users,” she says.

To illustrate this point, Kelsey Piotrowski M ’24 mapped the time and distance it would take a student in a wheelchair to get from the door of Lee Hall to the classroom. The wheelchair-accessible path took two full minutes when the building was empty and was 600 feet longer than the path a person without a wheelchair would take.

“I was studying accessibility in design within my studio at the time, so I felt that this exploration fit well in the social issues I wanted to tackle in my design project,” says Piotrowski. “Immersing myself into what life in a building looks like for someone with different abilities helped me take a stronger understanding of accessibility into the profession.”

“We all shape the environment that we’re in, and my goal is to be licensed, practicing and helping to reshape environments for the good of the community.”

Nehemiah Ashford-Carroll

Asking Deeper Questions

Design Justice helps students take a stronger understanding of inclusivity into the profession. For architecture and space, the class dives into what it means to design inclusive spaces and looks at cases in which architecture has been used as an inclusive or divisive mechanism.

During this segment of the course, Ashford-Carroll began exploring the concept of invisible architecture, which he first encountered in Europe. He remembers seeing how skateboarders turned the staircase of a museum entrance into their skatepark, which influenced the function of the designed space.

He applied the concept in class by studying traces of segregation in the South and learned that invisible architecture can manifest in the way people change the function of a space or the way they are forced to experience a building. For example, bricked-over segregated entrances are just-visible reminders of Jim Crow-era designs that created distinctly separate spaces for people in the same building.

Mendez encouraged Ashford-Carroll to apply for a travel grant from the Clemson Architectural Foundation to continue his research on invisible architecture, and his proposal was approved. He spent the next two months traveling throughout the South, California and Washington, D.C., cataloging traces of segregation in the South and D.C. and homelessness in California through investigative photography.

“It was heavy for me to see all of that in the South, and then see the homeless situation in California,” Ashford-Carroll recalls. “I would walk by a basketball court in California that’s currently serving as a large tent community.”

In the South, invisible architecture looks like bricked-over doorways and repurposed buildings that were part of segregated industries, like cotton mills. “And in California,” he says, “the people experiencing homelessness are so visible, it’s like they’ve become invisible to people moving about their day.”

Ashford-Carroll’s research in California was, in part, influenced by the third section of the Design Justice course. In the class, justice in architecture and the city means that everyone has equal access to participate in the city’s culture, economy and growth.

Mendez looks to Harvey Gantt ’65 as a leader in this realm.

Through his work as an architect, city planner and politician, Gantt has influenced nearly every peak and valley in the Charlotte, North Carolina, skyline as well as the lives of citizens who travel into and out of the city’s center each day. He used his architecture expertise and leadership skills to chair the Charlotte Moves Task Force, a collaborative group supporting affordability and quality of life for all in the community, and he helped develop the local rail system, which gives all citizens equal access to the city’s different areas and amenities.

After completing the class, students have expressed seeing places and spaces differently, especially the ones they grew up in and interact with daily. Thanks to lessons on architecture and the body, space and city, they can move forward in their careers with a newfound nuance to their design — one that benefits and protects the whole community.

Ashford-Carroll in Lee III, the architecture building.

“I’m thankful to have been a part of the group that created a course to answer important questions students will continue to ask about the larger context of the community and our environment.”

Nehemiah Ashford-Carroll

Designing a Fairer Future

For Ashford-Carroll, creating the course and participating in it as a student were part of his journey to the Harvard Graduate School of Design.

In the Master of Architecture I program, he’s continued to pursue design justice by taking courses related to urban planning and design. After graduating from Harvard in 2025, he hopes to begin a career as a licensed architect focusing on civic, community and educational buildings. And one day, bring his dream project to life — a civic space that inspires people to explore designed spaces just like he does.

“We’re all designers,” Ashford-Carroll says when considering the impact he hopes to make through his career. “We all shape the environment that we’re in, and my goal is to be licensed, practicing and helping to reshape environments for the good of the community.

“I’m thankful to have been a part of the group that created a course to answer important questions students will continue to ask about the larger context of the community and our environment.”

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