A Psychology Alumnus Applies His Ph.D. Research to Build Social, Racial, and Environmental Justice in Architecture

Todd Levon Brown

Todd Levon Brown (Ph.D. ’21, Psychology) is putting his doctoral research into action with a prestigious fellowship that aims to bring social, environmental, and racial justice to the field of architecture. The recipient of the University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture's Race and Gender in the Built Environment Fellowship, Brown is teaching architecture students to challenge traditional architectural pedagogy with community-focused, inclusive designs.

The path he designed to this fellowship began at the University of Illinois Chicago with an undergraduate degree in architecture and a master’s in public health, where he began to focus on racial and environmental justice. He followed that with a master’s in architecture, but became disenchanted with the field, as he told Archinect.com, because it “did not prioritize racial and many other social considerations in its design philosophy.” Brown decided that his “next goal would be to complete a research doctorate that would allow me to synthesize my knowledge of architectural design and public and environmental health issues while emphasizing social, environmental, and racial justice. My search for the perfect Ph.D. program eventually led me to the environmental psychology program at the Graduate Center.” 

He spoke to us about his research, his goals for teaching architecture students and for the field of architecture, and how the Graduate Center inspired him.

The Graduate Center: What are you teaching at Austin and what do you hope the students take away?

Brown: I'm teaching studio workshops and the theme is socioracial sustainability and inclusion within architecture and urban design. We look at a variety of aspects, from designing for lower income groups and people of color to how their architectural projects, especially residential and in a gentrifying neighborhood can start to give back to the community via inclusive communal spaces. 

GC: How are you applying your dissertation research about central Harlem to your work at the University of Texas?

Brown: My dissertation, Environmental Cues and the Sociospatial Imaginary: An Examination of Spatial Perception and Meaning-Making in a Gentrifying Neighborhood, looked at the nuances of architectural and spatial perception in the context of gentrification. It showed the very nuanced ways in which people perceive spaces as exclusive rather than inclusive. My dissertation is directly applicable now because I'm able to work with these future architects and say that these are the considerations that they need to bring into their projects, to think about the fact that they’re designing for the community.

The students have been extremely open and excited to learn about architecture in a different way that's not part of traditional pedagogy. They have gotten thrilled for this workshop. That's been one of the most rewarding aspects about it. I'm so passionate about it because, even though I had a great architectural education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, these types of topics were missing. I was trained on how to be an architect, which is great, but I was not trained on how to really critically consider community.

GC: How did your experience at the Graduate Center influence what you're doing now?

Brown: It directly shaped what I'm doing. My adviser was Professor Emeritus David Chapin. Mine was the last dissertation that he oversaw. I was so lucky because David was a licensed architect and I always tell him that I learned more about architecture in the environmental psychology program than I did during my undergraduate and my graduate programs in architecture. It was not until I was exposed to the readings and theory in environmental psychology that everything started to make sense. 

GC: What are you thinking about longer term after the fellowship? 

Brown: I'm always open to any opportunities that allow me to implement change at more systemic and institutional levels. That's probably the next goal, to broaden my horizon in terms of the applicability of my work beyond the studio to working with firms, working with schools of architecture, working across pedagogy and practice in order to implement change on a broader scale. 

GC: You have put you research into action.

Brown: These architecture students are getting exposure to this critical socially and racially centered education as part of their architectural training. That itself is a reward for me. 

Published by the Office of Communications and Marketing

Submitted on: NOV 17, 2021

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