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Deanna Van Buren

A socially minded Oakland architect who’s winning attention and awards

Talk to Deanna van Buren about her architectural aspirations, and the discussion routinely shifts back and forth between grand visions and the nitty-gritty of getting things done.

She discusses her small firm’s work to reconfigure a 28-foot trailer as a portable support facility for women and the larger challenge of rethinking how architecture responds to mass incarceration. Her conversion of a long-empty Oakland retail building into a community support space isn’t yet complete, but she’s in the planning stages for a 1.6-acre version in Detroit that would include housing.

She’s also the recipient of a major prize from UC Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design that will include a semester-long teaching stint. But this month her focus is packing boxes at the co-working space for design professionals that she helped conceive, so that the facility can move to a new spot in downtown Oakland.

“I like to be visionary, but I’m also a practitioner,” said van Buren, whose firm is among the tenants in Building Industry Gathering — Oakland, the co-working space that will relocate to a former bookstore on Broadway in February. “When you design and create, it’s important to zoom out and think about how your work is tied to the larger culture.”

The Oakland resident is the fourth architect to receive the Berkeley-Rupp Architecture Prize, a $100,000 honor awarded biannually. Besides the money, it includes a semester-long professorship at the College of Environmental Design.

The award is named after Sigrid Rupp, a Palo Alto architect whose estate made the bequest after her death in 2004. It is reserved for designers or academics “promoting the advancement of women in the field of architecture.”

Prior winners include New York architect Deborah Berke, now dean of the Yale School of Architecture, and Spanish architect Carme Pinós. Van Buren is the first local recipient — but her efforts have also received wider recognition, including the 2017 Activist award from Architectural Record.

“She’s thinking in very creative ways about the role architecture can have in terms of addressing inequities in the justice system,” said Cathleen McGuigan, the magazine’s editor in chief. “It’s extraordinary and important for her to have a presence addressing these issues of national importance.”

Born in Virginia, Van Buren moved to the Bay Area from Australia in 2006 with her husband at the time and briefly lived in San Francisco before settling in Oakland. She’d been designing conventional buildings until then, but a latent interest in pursuing a more socially relevant path blossomed soon after arriving here.

She was drawn to design as it relates to “restorative justice,” a phrase Van Buren first heard during a talk by sisters Angela and Fania Davis.

The goal is what Van Buren calls “an alternative way of addressing harm in communities” — bypassing the legal system to resolve, at the neighborhood or community level, how best to make amends for wrongdoing.

The firm Van Buren founded with Kyle Rawlins bears the name Designing Justice + Designing Spaces. Local projects include the two Wind Star trailers being reconfigured into portable oases that can bring needed support services to women in need.

“Mobile architecture can do a lot of things that bricks and mortar can’t do,” said Van Buren, such as pulling up outside a jail on nights that women are being released.

The firm’s first permanent Bay Area structure opens in the spring, Restore Oakland, in the Fruitvale district, will include a restaurant that will provide job training for low-income workers and the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, as well as other community nonprofits.

“In our case, designing for equity has a few layers,” said Van Buren, a rare African American woman in a profession historically dominated by white males. “There’s racial equity and gender equity but also economic equity. We’re primarily focused on working with low-income communities of color.”

Efforts like these aren’t unique. What Van Buren emphasizes is that the design of such spaces must be conceived to resonate physically with the people they aim to serve, rather than rely on good intentions.

“Space needs to be accessible, but it should also be relaxing,” Van Buren said. “The energy we aim to create is calming and soothing, so that people want to be there.”

As abstract as some of these notions might sound, Van Buren emphasizes that they connect to ongoing national debates. She is heartened by December’s passage of a federal justice reform bill that would reduce mandatory sentences for such felony crimes as drug possession while increasing rehabilitation and job training programs.

“There’s been a huge awakening about criminal justice and how bad aspects of the current model are. It’s the only bipartisan issue in Washington,” Van Buren said. “It’s not just an aesthetic issue, obviously, but we also can’t just talk about policy.”

Van Buren will spend the fall 2019 semester at Cal. She’s planning to teach a course on exploring how to create spaces for peacemaking, while also working on a book.

“I’ll be opening the class to the entire university and encouraging cross-discipline work,” Van Buren said. “We need to think about how to get everyone talking to each other.”

Image credit:
Liz Hafalia
San Francisco Chronicle