2018 THE VIRGINIA ARCHITECTURE MAGAZINE

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LESSONS IN LIVING WITH ELGIN CLECKLEY: RE-THINKING DESIGN

March 30, 2017

 

“Design thinking is all about reconfiguring how you are, what you think and how you see the world,” Elgin Cleckley told me as we shared a spot of sunshine in the Bishop conference room. “[...] What that means, too, is you have to be willing to change your mind as you keep working. It doesn’t mean you’re done at this point. You have to be consistently open.”

 

Design thinking is more than a discipline of study to Elgin. It’s a way of living and seeing the world. It’s a way of changing the world by changing the way you understand it. It is both theoretical and pragmatic. Thinking is constructing. This discipline emerged from his life experiences, “I spent a lot of time in my upbringing being verbally ridiculed for not forming to a construction that people felt. And, when that happens to you on a continual basis you have to find an internal strength based on the support you have, but also the philosophy of how you want to live and sometimes you have to make your own construction.” When others set limits to his identity based on preconceived notions, Elgin takes these lemons and makes theoretical lemonade. 

 

Elgin lives out his own sense of democracy and his commitments to community and change. “I’m big on everyone’s opinion having value and creating a sense of community, but I like to have that sense of community in my mind.” Who does that everyone include? Everyone. Really. “When I don’t agree with someone, I try to learn from them first. I’ll read their biography. I’ll listen to them. I don’t like to position.” Elgin listens intently to as many points of view as he can. He approaches difference with compassion and humanity:

 

“I just want to understand how someone could have a position similar to mine or totally different. I’m fascinated by it. I’m a human being; you’re a human being. How is it that we have such drastically different experiences? And I realize that’s the bedrock of the civil rights movement. It’s the bedrock of social change. It’s the bedrock of design thinking. You have to adjust your thinking because people thinking about things differently.” 

 

Elgin opens himself up to those who think differently from him with patience and diligence. The idea of this practice alone intimidates me. I had to ask him about where he might find the energy and motivation to keep this practice going.  Sometimes, he goes to the gardens by the lawn for quiet contemplation. This is a simple route across the University avenue pavement and brick footpaths for most, but Elgin doesn’t leave out any of the forces of history that push up at his heels, “I go to the gardens and I think that someone’s dream is my reality now. [...] A slave dreamt of me and that dream probably happened right over there.” He points outside the window and involves the immovable landscape and history of this university into our conversation. He honors this gift to be some one’s dream: “That’s what keeps me going.” There are things we can only learn from those who came before us, a frame of reference for hope. 

 

“[D]on’t forget that I have my experience as a student here, too. I vividly recall discussions in the early 90’s amongst students and administration about the confederate flags used as drapery in residences near the Architecture School... I think about it now. [...] There has been tremendous change in levels of diversity and levels of inclusion. And, to be honest, I’m incredibly proud to be here now and I realized I’m part of it. Which is what I asked for. I said to the world, please help me to figure out what I can do to help for the rest of my time on the planet. That’s how I define sustainability.” 

 

Today, Elgin looks around the university and sees “the most hopeful generation to walk the earth.” We have the intentions and expectations of a more sustainable world. We have a platform to communicate and share the methods to make this happen. And most importantly, we have the support of those who have come before us and who are with us now, like Elgin and other members of our faculty. 

 

Our conversation ended on the topic of empathy as a design tool. I asked Elgin, how we can design with empathy? “You need to get deep and you really need to deeply think about people and connections. [...] you have to be willing to change your mind as you keep working. You have to be consistently open. [...] Openness has to be treated like a muscle. It teaches you as you go along.” Designing with empathy is an exercise. It is a way of reading a space for what it is through what it has been with honesty and compassion. 

 

Design thinking acknowledges narratives embedded in the built environment. It informs us in our decisions and how to shape them. Although physical designs often embody many different narratives, these can’t be recognized if it is not our custom to talk about them. We allow the opportunity to unearth and enrich our culture when we have the critical conversations that include the historical context.

 

Elgin often parsed through history to find images to mirror and communicate his understanding of his place at this university. He referenced Selma in 1965 when thousands of people came to march fifty-four miles to Montgomery as a peaceful demonstration for Civil Rights. “Can you imagine lining yourself up and walking across a bridge with people who disagree with you to the height and you’re dressed to the nines and you just want to have the faith to let this happen? That’s why I’m here. That’s why you’re here, too.” 

 

Elgin returns to the School of Architecture with the strengths of vulnerability and optimism. It is an honor to welcome him back to the university. 

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