James DeKoven
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The Architect Who Designs Hope

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All of us can look back to otherwise random events that ended up presenting new possibilities for our lives. You casually flipped through a book of photography that sparked a business idea. You overhead a conversation on the bus that helped you gain clarity about a personal challenge.

Architect Mallory Cusenberry experienced serendipity of another kind – one that not only altered the trajectory of his life, but also created options for those who didn’t have many to begin with.

It was 1982, and he was studying music with aspirations of becoming a rock n roll star. But Mallory increasingly realized he wasn’t actually a good musician, and he struggled when thinking of other viable career options. Then one day while killing time in the West Portal Branch library, he read a piece in the San Francisco Chronicle about the proposed design for the Yerba Buena Center. The article included a photograph of a model of the center. “I saw that model and immediately thought, ‘That’s what I want to do’. The problem was that I didn’t know what ‘that’ was. I just knew intuitively I had to be involved in that type of endeavor. After casting about for a bit I finally figured out it was architecture I was after. That sealed the deal.”

Mallory went on to study architecture at U.C Berkeley, then joined the ranks of the profession, and then landed a job at the firm that would eventually bear his name, RossDrulisCusenbery Architecture.  They design courthouses, police and fire stations, 9-1-1 answering points and youth centers. And although Mallory relishes the design challenges in all his projects, he gets unique satisfaction with his youth center work. Says Mallory: “I love to see young people positively impacted, and provide hope at a crucial time when they have few open doors.”

To grasp his perspective, you have to understand that today’s youth centers are not the “rec centers” of a bygone era, where neighborhood kids gathered mainly to play sports and board games. Now, many kids seek refuge at these places because they lack family support or have limited options within their communities. Some are homeless, drifting physically as well as emotionally through the unchartered waters of their lives.

Youth centers act as havens, providing access to social, medical, and behavioral health services, caseworkers, therapists, fitness and art classes, daycare, and mentoring from adults they can trust. As young people receive services unavailable in the larger community, they gain a sense of safety and acceptance, giving them tools to cultivate prosperous futures.

Mallory can relate to the positive impact places can have on kids. “Growing up, spaces brought me comfort, connectedness, a feeling like I belonged. I remember climbing the grand staircase in San Francisco’s Main Library with my mom to get books, and hanging over the windowsill in my grandparents’ apartment overlooking the historic farmer’s market in Zagreb, Croatia. Those experiences helped to instill a belief that my life had possibilities. With a properly designed youth center, underserved communities can help foster a similar mindset in their young people.”

Mallory understands that young people’s expertise is just as valid as his expertise for informing the final design. That’s why he avoids the traditional top-down design process for youth centers, where adults choose what they think is beneficial for the kids. Instead he has youth actively participate in key design choices: They have meetings and together they draw, exchange ideas, do word association exercises, laugh and tell stories.

By participating in the design process, the young people begin to recognize they have choices in life beyond their socio-economic situation. And without them necessarily realizing it, they gain spatial literacy, which is the ability to think about a space based on its social function rather than mere aesthetics.

This is no minor lesson. As Mallory explains, if more people had the tools to accurately critique the built environment – if we understood how certain environments promote or suppress specific behavior – we could be more involved in advocating for healthy dynamics in our homes and workplaces. In fact, he feels that spatial literacy should be taught in elementary schools, a fundamental topic like math or reading.

Philosophical thinking like this is a few mental galaxies away from the wanna-be professional musician of 30-plus years ago. And Mallory is well aware of the forces of serendipity. “I understand that if certain things hadn’t aligned, I may not have gotten where I am today. U.C Berkeley was the only architecture school I applied to and I didn’t get accepted on my first try; I barely made it in upon appeal. I never had a Plan B, so I never imagined what might have happened if things didn’t work out. It was all-or-nothing. Fortunately, I never had to test out what might have become of me.” 

The kids at the youth centers he designs probably feel the same.