The annual Seattle Design Festival is a two-week-long event that brings together architects and designers from around the city to celebrate "the ways design makes life better." Usually, it's a safely cohesive conference.
But this year's event included a panel discussion called "Questioning Youth Incarceration" at Seattle Central Library's auditorium on September 19. The idea was to delve into architecture's role in locking people up, and the panel included people who don't typically attend architecture and design conferences, let alone speak: two activists and educators with the protest movement that influenced the Seattle City Council and the King County Council to scale back the Children and Family Justice Center coming to Seattle next year, a young man who'd been incarcerated himself, and a law professor at the University of Washington named Angelica Chazaro.
At one point, Chazaro leaned into the mic and issued a direct challenge to the architects and builders of the county's next juvenile jail: "I call on Integrus, Howard S. Wright, and HOK to turn down those contracts," she boomed.
"Integrus—a sponsor here today—boasts on its web site about the solitary unit ["Special Housing Unit"] they built at the [federal] Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma," Chazaro continued, delivering a tense moment to the audience.
There was one person in the audience who hoped Chazaro's challenge would go even further—the design festival's new organizer, Susan Surface.
After the panel, Surface explained that she'd actually hoped for an even more direct conversation between the two sides. She wanted the Integrus architects to join the panel, but they declined. (They declined to comment for this article as well.)
"You can see someone as a faceless Dr. Evil, building prisons, or as an activist who's part of a screaming horde, but in their own very different ways, these are the two groups of people who care the very most about this issue," Surface said. "To me, those are exactly the people who should be in the room when we're talking about creating the world we want to live in. When worlds are in opposition to each other, that's a really important moment."
Surface, 34, arrived in Seattle from New York a year ago to become program director of Design in Public, an initiative of the Seattle chapter of the American Institute of Architects. Founded in 2011 to help Seattle talk and think about the impact of design on urban life, Design in Public's main event every year is the Seattle Design Festival, where Chazaro issued her challenge. There's no other platform for public conversations about design in Seattle.
Surface is a degreed architectural designer herself, but she didn't come to the field the way most architects do. Her secret curriculum vitae includes weed plucker, drug tester, plasma donor, hotel housekeeper, usher for a traveling production of Cirque du Soleil, diorama sculptor at a natural history museum ("making seaweed, ice, and tube worms"), magazine editorial assistant, nonprofit and commercial gallery curatorial assistant, amateur bull rider (ongoing). But more on that later.
Surface wants to create safe, stable, reasonable places. She wants public bathrooms in Seattle. She supports the idea of a one-year moratorium on new building in the gentrifying neighborhood of the Central District. She dreams of developments different from the norms: intergenerational family homes, dwellings for singles willing to share kitchens, places for single parents of multiple children. People with pets are banned from an entire sector of housing, so she imagines housing and animal advocates working together to ban no-pets policies.
Chazaro, the UW law professor from the panel, said, "Sometimes these hires [like Surface] are made in the name of diversity, and the people doing the hiring get more than they bargained for, because sometimes those people are the real thing, and I think Susan is the real thing. It speaks well for [AIA Seattle] that they let Susan do what she does, and push at things."
Surface wants the degreed experts to open up and listen up. How would the average American architect, an able-bodied male, white, and upper-middle-class person, know how to build a prison, anyway? How would he know how to design a city that's welcoming and helpful—rather than exacerbating—to people without homes, or the use of their legs, or predictably replenished bank accounts?
"In architecture school, it was pitched as a choice," Surface said. "'Are you going to do beautiful architecture or do-gooder architecture?' I want to do neither and both."
Will it matter? Could Surface's appearance at Design in Public mark the arrival of a historic presence who will push Seattle to aspire to more than blank urban office parks and upscale everything?
Surface's first job after graduating from Yale with her master of architecture degree in 2012 was working in a dildo factory.
"It was the worst dildo factory that ever dildo-factoried," Surface said.
At this dildo factory, which Surface kept nameless, "they insisted that the white dildos were 'natural' while others were 'Black' and 'Latino,' even though we kept telling them not to. And the ergonomics were bad! If the dildo hit one thing on your body then it wouldn't hit the others, if you know what I mean."
Yale School of Architecture was only marginally more comfortable than the dildo factory. Surface found it cutthroat, sexist, and racist. When the dean, Robert A.M. Stern, told the website Big Think in a short video in 2009 that there are too few women in architecture because of motherhood, Surface addressed Stern in a blog post with 15 critical questions, culminating in "As an educator and employer, what are you doing to address gender disparity in academia and the workplace?"
Kian Goh was a reader of Surface's blog. Goh, who'd graduated from Yale in the 1990s, has her own firm, called SUPER-INTERESTING!, and needed an assistant in redesigning the offices of the Audre Lorde Project, an organizing center in New York for LGBT people of color. Goh hired Surface, and at SUPER-INTERESTING! Surface found a firm where she could be herself. Goh found someone effective, not just idealistic.
"It was really nice to have someone for whom the aesthetic measure of things was not secondary to her activism," Goh recalled of Surface in a phone conversation.
Among Surface's other jobs: modeling while covered in mud and wearing a mask for the artist Vanessa Beecroft ("She paid really well"), including modeling naked except for a wig for a Korean department store ad (the women's bodies arranged on the floor to form the word for the store in Korean and then English, Surface said); freelance fashion photographer; organizer for the first-ever Ladyfest; luxury residential architecture associate; first staffer at now-defunct nonprofit Architecture for Humanity (founder Cameron Sinclair told me she's a "humble pioneer"); volunteer working on affordable housing design at Common Ground (now Breaking Ground); museum art handler and exhibition preparator; door girl at Lower East Side bar ("I credit that job with giving me my backbone"); designer of luxury packaging.
As a feminist fashion photographer, Surface shared a studio with Nikola Tamindzic, the Serbian-born art and fashion photographer who established himself as Gawker's resident photographer in 2004 and now shoots for New York and Harper's Bazaar.
"Susan was always concerned with the things that are getting a lot more play now, like diversity in race, size, et cetera," Tamindzic said by phone from that same studio, where Surface's couch still sits.
He remembers her photographs as "quietly confrontational," sort of like her.
It wasn't that any single image looked unusual, it was that her portfolio was varied, and that the people looked like themselves rather than a norm. She photographed unskinny people, short people, albino people, even a woman so injured that she couldn't wear makeup or have her hair done but who "looked amazing and open-faced in these amazing outfits," Surface said. "It was about taking whatever the person's situation was, whatever was actually in front of you, and just working with it, similar to the way I would approach a space."
"Susan was one of the first people who made me consider some of these things," Tamindzic told me. "If you're friends with her, or you work with her, you will be exposed to issues, and you will be forced to reconsider. Unless you're a dick."
Is Seattle a dick? Seattle is changing alarmingly fast. Downtown alone, there are $4 billion in construction costs on projects under way in 2015, higher than any other year in a decade when the average costs have totaled $2.5 billion (in inflation-adjusted 2015 dollars), according to the Downtown Seattle Association.
The building boom is projected to continue at least through 2018 given the large-scale projects already in design phases, the DSA predicts (the expansion of the Washington State Convention Center and the redevelopment of Rainier Square, for example).
Increasingly, especially in pockets like South Lake Union, people are designing and building places that feel inhospitable to all but the fanciest demographics—and maybe these places don't feel welcoming to them, either. There, the sidewalks of the central Terry Avenue North are antiseptic, pressure-washed gray. The smooth earth between landscaped shrubs is weedless and rootless. The biotech and Amazon buildings all around are made of glass and metal, and their empty lobbies sparkle at night under the dark sky, where an army of construction cranes hovers silently, powered down for the night.
Sometimes it's hard to make out a single remnant of whatever was here before all of this. Human beings built this place for other human beings?
"Design was never really presented to me as an option," Surface told me. "I always had to fight to make it clear why I should be listened to. One of my arguments was: I know my community's life better than you do as professional designers.
"It's not like you're going to design some single product that revolutionizes the way people shape the world around them," Surface said. "You have to change fundamentally how your organization is structured, how your resources are allocated, stop thinking of yourself as a gatekeeper. It's about redistributing how power and decision making and resources are divided between people.
"For me, it's bringing my intern into decision-making processes and making sure they're at the table with the client," she said. "Even treating people in a way that outsteps the profession" by recognizing that personal lives, especially socioeconomics, come to bear on work settings.
"Nothing about us, without us" is the revolutionary slogan used in democratic movements for centuries, and it's the doctrine Surface applied to this fall's Seattle Design Festival.
The festival was themed "Design for Equity," and the board of directors selected it before hiring Surface. In trusting her, the board was rewarded with a bigger festival that included far more types of people, said board president Robert A. Smith . Next year's theme is "Design Change," but "Susan said, and we all agreed, the festival should always be about equity... That's a baseline requirement moving forward."
Smith said there were 123 presenting groups and 13,600 attendees at the festival this year, compared to 57 and 10,300 respectively at the previous height in 2014.
So far, so good in the matter of Surface versus lip service.
Personally, Surface would like to see prisons abolished. Her gut instinct is that architects ought to boycott building them, but if prisoners told her architects and designers could help, she'd follow them instead.
"Should architects build prisons?" she said. "A prisoner would be the one to answer that question and tell us what to do."
Surface has spent a long time considering what home is and what it means to be at home in the world.
Susan Hideko Surface was born on the Fort Lewis military base and grew up in nearby Steilacoom in a one-story house that looks like something between a ranch and a double-wide, the only child of a homemaker and a retired senior noncommissioned air force officer who founded his own small sporting-goods company.
Growing up, Surface knew other kids saw her as a nerd. In sixth grade, she won a Pierce County spelling bee, and it did not endear her to the kids at the school where her mother still regrets enrolling her that year: the Life Christian Academy in Tacoma.
Life Christian is an evangelical megachurch with a campus of connected facilities beginning with preschool and going right on through to retirement. Her mother, not a churchgoer but influenced by both Christianity and her native Shinto and Buddhism, thought a parochial school would shield her daughter from the riffraff of public school and give her the best chance of assimilating into the American mainstream.
Surface had several weaknesses in the Life Christian world: She was new, terrible at sports, wearing big glasses, and biracial. Her mother was not a donor or member of the church, and Surface said she was treated differently because of it. Dating was construed as the girl leading the boy astray; when Surface had a white boyfriend, she remembers pastors scolding her not to ruin his life.
"It was ingrained in that whole space that I was a disgusting person," Surface said. "It was this foreboding sense of not being welcome. I was afraid for my future."
She stopped eating and attempted suicide. Her mother decided it was past time for a change, but still not to public school.
Surface switched to the Jesuit academy Bellarmine Prep for high school. It's just across the street from Life Christian, but to Surface, it felt like being airlifted out of a war zone.
She went to Christian rock concerts; she played electric bass in a church band. If she snuck out of the house, it wasn't to smoke or drink (she was straight-edge at the time), it was for an animal-rights protest. "I was the corniest person," she said.
One day, during her senior year, her mother walked in on her kissing a girl. Mother and daughter screamed at each other. They both said terrible things, according to Surface. Surface left.
She spent the second half of her senior year precariously, taking odd jobs and crashing on the couches of punk friends she told she was "just traveling." She became a statistic, one of the 40 percent of the homeless youth population that's LGBT, according to a 2012 study by the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law. The number-one reason LGBT youth told the researchers they were homeless or at risk of becoming homeless was: "Ran away because of family rejection of sexual orientation or gender identity."
Out on her own, when Surface was without a home, constantly looking for sympathy or basic dignity in her built environment, she started to become seriously "attuned to a nice space being available"—or not. It was a short leap to choosing architecture as a career path.
One night returning to her Jersey City apartment in the spring of her first year at college in 2001, Surface was sexually assaulted at knifepoint and a neighbor called the police to file a report, she said. What happened next, she said, was more heinous a crime than even the rape.
The officer who took her report marked the assailant's race as Black, though Surface insisted she couldn't determine it, she said.
"It's worse because it's someone with institutional power actively targeting a whole group of people," she described. Systematic violence is worse than individual violence, in other words.
Surface kept to herself about the policeman's behavior, and Jersey City police reports that do not result in arrest are destroyed after seven years, the records office told me by phone.
But whatever those lost records might be able to add to the events of that night, the glaring racial disproportionality of American police action as a whole has been well-documented in the years since Surface's assault.
The Black Lives Matter movement, which has arisen in response to abuses by police, won the Lewis Mumford Award for Peace this year at the annual ceremony of the Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility. ADPSR is a national organization and held its ceremony in Seattle for the first time this year, at the Seattle Design Festival. Surface had nominated Black Lives Matter for the award.
The night was tense. The event was held in the Bullitt Center, billed as the greenest commercial building in the world, but where the crowd is upscale and largely white—demonstrating how passionate eco-activists in Seattle can create places that are hostile to entire swaths of the human species.
Marissa Johnson of Black Lives Matter, who'd interrupted presidential candidate Bernie Sanders weeks before, accepted the award and spoke, and she told the people in the crowd they were complicit in gentrification even if they didn't realize it or mean to be. As an architect or designer in Seattle today, there's a high likelihood that your work is having a less-than-positive effect on somebody you're not thinking about, Johnson said.
"She laid some pretty heavy stuff on the people in the audience," said Raphael Sperry, president of ADPSR.
Sperry, a middle-aged white man based in the Bay Area, is like most architects, according to the American Institute of Architects, whose approximately 83,000 members are 83 percent male and 90 percent white.
"How does a profession of largely white people deal with poor people of color in the United States? Mostly, we don't," Sperry said. "Most of the work architects do is for wealthy private clients, who are mostly white. The racial dynamics in the United States are even worse in real estate than in many other sectors."
Surface "has been very brave to bring up these issues," he continued.
"To some degree, the idea of social equity is a current trend, or a buzzword," he said. "I have seen so many buzzwords... my favorite was an architecture conference called 'Community Dialogues' where they wouldn't let community members come in for the dialogue. But my feeling is that having those disenfranchised and underrepresented voices foregrounded... in the [Seattle] festival—that is not something I have seen happen at other festivals. I think she achieved a lot, and I think she will continue to."
Recently, Sperry led the effort to get AIA to forbid its members from designing abusive environments, including execution chambers and solitary prison cells. The AIA refused.
There is no shortage of lip service about social reform through architecture across the field. The AIA's annual Academy of Architecture for Justice conference, a meeting about the design of prisons, courthouses, and cop shops, this year is titled "Challenging the Status Quo" and includes talks such as "Prison Realignment and Blue Skies: If Architects Ruled the World," "Social Responsibility Through Planning and Design," "Prison Reform in Central America Through Prison Design," and "Master Planning for NO Growth: The New Paradigm for Corrections."
But every speaker at that conference, which was held last month in Miami, was credentialed as an architect or an officer of the law.
That's where Surface's festival diverged, and what makes her vulnerable to criticism from established institutions.
Seattle Design Festival has never insisted that those who apply to be presenters or panelists show their bona fides, but Surface made that distinction explicit in the publicity materials. She also included in her instructions a link to the Tumblr "Congrats, You Have an All Male Panel!" and a warning not to qualify for it.
How responsible are architects, actually, for the projects they make? I asked Mark Reddington, an architect with LMN who's designed buildings around the world, including Seattle's Benaroya Hall and McCaw Hall, homes to the Seattle Symphony and Seattle Opera.
"Architects don't decide what's going to get built exactly," Reddington said. "Clients come up with what they need to build, they come up with funding, they go find an architect. What they want to build is not always what every architect believes should be built. Some architects will say, 'I'm not willing to be part of that, and others will say, 'Well, if I'm designing it, I can make the best version of it that could possibly be, and that would be a good thing for the world, or better than a bad version of that project.'"
LMN doesn't design prisons or hospitals, which are "not especially inspiring work," he said. LMN does do transit systems—it's responsible for the University light rail station opening in 2016—yet refused to participate in the now-dead Seattle Monorail project. Many architects on both sides refused, Reddington said. LMN's boycott came from the belief that Seattle needed other types of transit. Concerned architects have a range of decisions available to them, from boycotting to infiltrating.
On a gray afternoon a few months ago, Susan Surface returned to her mother's Steilacoom home for the occasional visit that's become normal since she moved back to Washington in January.
"Call me H!" said Susan's mother as she threw open the door to me.
Her name is Hideko, but people get it wrong.
"I would be like, 'Call me by my name,'" Susan responded to her mother's greeting, but if Hideko heard her, she didn't let on.
Their lives are worlds apart. Hideko was born in 1937, Susan in 1981. Hideko thought she was entering menopause when she found out she was pregnant. She gave birth at 44 to her only child.
A large painting dominates the small, immaculate house. It's a man, and he can't be much older than Susan was when she left home.
"That's my husband!" Hideko exclaimed. She ran to grab the 60-year-old photograph that inspired the painting, which showed Hideko at age 18 and Susan's father, David, at 20. David died when Susan was 7. She remembers watching her mother caretaking her father to the end of his life. He was the undisputed head of the house, was Susan's impression.
"He was the best husband. He was the best husband," Hideko said.
Hideko stood beneath a tall shelf where she'd placed a delicate bonsai and a full-size American eagle made of bronze. She wore a soft pink sweater and offered plates of snacks. But she was the heroine of her life stories, fighting for her own identity—like Susan would later.
"Japanese society didn't talk about women who went with GIs," Hideko said. "I told my mother, I don't care what society say, I want to live for me. If I had two lives to live, I would live one for my parents, for my siblings, for my society. But I only have one life, and I'm going to live it for me."
Hideko pounded her chest, once, on "me."
In Hideko's house, a small room is populated with porcelain dolls. She paints them, sews their clothes, sets them on stands, and visits them every morning. "Isn't that funny?" she said. To Hideko, the dolls are a hobby, not art, and Susan is the only artist in the family because art is weird.
"When they came to Susan's photo, everybody stop," Hideko said, laughing as she related the story of Susan's high-school art show. "I said, 'What is that?' and ask the teacher. The teacher points to the wall and it says, 'Frozen Hose.' I've been thinking, you know, Mount Rainier is a picture. There are obvious pictures where you see it and right away you know what it is. No matter how much I look at Susan's picture, I just don't get it. The teacher said, 'That's what's good about it—everybody stops.' I haven't forgotten it. Susan has a different kind of mind than just regular, ordinary people."
If Hideko could ask Susan anything, what would it be? Hideko at first says she doesn't know. Then she decides on it and looks straight at her daughter.
"When are you going to find a nice husband?"
Susan has not stopped kissing women (she dates people of all genders). There hasn't been any big reconciliation. But she wants her mother in her life. Thinking of this, I can hear her saying, "When worlds are in opposition to each other, that's a really important moment."
Surface lives in a one-bedroom apartment near the water in West Seattle. It's a quiet place, and after a turbulent life so far, it feels like a landing.
"This is my sanctuary," she said, offering tea and resting on an open futon.
"Since I grew up out in Steilacoom, I just feel more relaxed if I can see the water. I don't feel relaxed in upscale beach areas. This beach is perfect. There's the road right there, and the beach is public."
Cold beach air blew through the apartment from the open balcony door to the open front door. There was almost no furniture to interrupt it. Books were divided according to type into piles pushed against one wall: sketchbooks, decorative arts, poetry, literature, books that include Surface's writings or photographs, books to read, fancy art books, photography books, how-to design books, architecture and humor, architecture and food, "do-goodery" architecture, books written by squatters, queer space and queer phenomenology books.
"It's not like the Dewey Decimal System," she grinned. "But it makes sense in my mind."
A few weeks before, after downing a celebratory sake Jell-O shot in a dark and busy Pioneer Square bar, Surface walked out into the warm August evening toward the larger party a block away, where she was helping to unveil a place where trenchant discussions about architecture and design can happen year-round.
The new Center for Architecture & Design, coming to the ground floor of the historic brick National Building at 1010 Western Avenue, is scheduled to open in late February.
Maybe 150 people were gathered at the site that night. It was still a big raw room, but you could feel its warm vibe from the exposed brick arches, the old-growth beams, and the big windows onto the street.
Surface blended in with minglers clutching white wines and summer rolls. They wrote ideas for the future of Seattle on index cards and hung them up. Someone wrote, "Competition: Redesign the single family hood," and another person next to that added, "Competition: Designing shelters for homeless." Surface added her comment card next to those: "STOP DOING DESIGN COMPETITIONS. Put all that thought & energy into collaborations."
The 4,500-square-foot Center for Architecture & Design is conceived as a collaboration between the three major industry organizations locally: AIA Seattle, Seattle Architecture Foundation, and Design in Public, where Surface is program director.
The center is the only street-facing public gallery fully dedicated to the exploration of architecture, design, and urban planning in Seattle.
"This is why I took this job—what I get to do is right on the street," Surface told me after the party, en route to another event. This next event, at City Hall, was a panel about transgender homelessness. No one from the industry unveiling except Surface and one man from Architects Without Borders went to it, or even seemed to know it was happening.
AIA Seattle has a "sincere ambition" to go "beyond just the business of practice and architecture to address big, challenging questions," said architect Reddington, who added that he "was involved for years in helping AIA form a more proactive public policy board, take positions on public policy issues, and be more engaged." He said the new center makes him hopeful.
One of the festival's big events every year is a free block party in Occidental Square, where designers present ideas and people try them out.
This September, it was sunny and beautiful out in the square. One company contributed a set of experiences called Play4All. You could build a box tower using prosthetic arms. You could sketch a self-portrait without being able to see what you were doing. The premise was that by limiting your own abilities, you would experience empathy for physical difference.
It was a bighearted display, and it was created by the designers at Integrus, the firm that Chazaro called out for building solitary confinement.
"Look at Integrus," Surface said, in a phone conversation late one evening after she'd finished another long day. "They are extremely supportive of the design community and really active, and the people who work there are really good-hearted. They don't want children in a jail that's unsafe or crumbling or poisoned with asbestos, so they build for that."
But she doesn't leave it there, throw up her hands at the tight spots architects find themselves in, or revel in staging conflicts and then calling it a dramatic day.
"I just want people to consider that things can get better," Surface said. "I just assume there's a chance there. I do believe that you can stand your ground on a topic and it will be okay, one way or another."