July 19, 2023

Jessica Morris, Assoc. AIA, is an independent practitioner and interdisciplinary built-environment professional working at the intersection of environment, culture, and human behavior. She Co-Chairs the AIANY Planning and Urban Design Committee, and engages areas of practice with a focus on innovative cross-disciplinary thinking, leveraging a community development lens to drive strategic client-side goals that contribute to the shaping of institutional and public realms.

Morris obtained a M.Arch from the University of Pennsylvania in 2014 and a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the Rhode Island School of Design in 2006. Prior to forming her consultancy, she was an architectural designer at Daniel Park Architects. Morris was a 2017 fellow of the AIANY Civic Leadership Program, which engages civically-minded emerging architecture professionals in a six-month mentorship and training program to develop skills to engage in the civic process.

Q: What do you think are the biggest challenges, or opportunities, facing cities today?

Architecture’s capacity to positively impact upstream social determinants of health is the biggest (human-centered) challenge and opportunity facing cities today. Urbanization, and the socio-cultural economic potential catalyzed by urbanization’s societal trends implicates our necessary ability to embed resilience as foundational to the work. This is contingent upon a visceral understanding of what constitutes the ability to bounce back and thrive, especially amidst adversity.

These are big ideas, long term expectations. I also plant daffodils through an intergenerational gardening program led by my NYCHA neighbors to steward the tree pits and open space on our 2nd Ave block.

Q: What do you see as an architect’s role—and responsibility—within our culture?

Well, when I say “architecture” I take that to mean an expanded field of practice. Semantically, this thinking applies to “architects” as Architecture’s responsible party. We know the practice of architecture was built on convention, and while the T-square enabled foundations miles ahead of lines in the sand, our tools today are effectively unlimited, whereby we are implicated to practice accordingly. But, more so, an architect’s ability to hone the craft of practice with, by and for design that is empathetic, not emphatic, will affect bottom lines, i.e. individual and community health and wealth, life expectancies—but only if we also learn how to effectively tell that story, alongside climate, form and material. It’s performative.

We have an aesthetic responsibility. I mean aesthetic as a totalizing condition, not e.g. just how the thing looks. We need to take more responsibility for co-benefit accounting both upstream and downstream to our work especially as it relates to both preservation and sustainability. There’s a great deal of unexplored, tactical synergy between those two evolving paradigms, broadly speaking. I maintain that preservation is a radical activity, and consideration for “economics once removed” is a powerful driver.

Q: How do you feel about the state of the industry right now?

I subscribe to the (Patrick) Geddes adage, “Think globally, act locally.”

Locally, where my approach to practice has been decidedly non-traditional and while I’m hopeful to witness the relatively recent traction towards meaningful change with regard to labor in (architectural) practice, I’m also not doe-eyed. Convention is tough to buck… Beyond labor, for the amount of attention we, as professionals, are required to devote to accessibility; there remains a vast under-awareness of inclusionary measure beyond surface redress in terms of identity equities, e.g. race and gender, not to mention a need to consider beyond ADA mobility-based accommodation. Work is happening. It takes time, and a collective, continued assertion to keep eyes wide open, keep making “noise.”

Perhaps my particular approach to practice is peripheral, but I think our capacity as agents, to engage interdisciplinary partners — from investment and finance, social science, engineering and ecology, in both public and private arenas of common-goal, data-driven progress — that’s Industry! We have the tools and perhaps also the generational will to raise the bar, ahead. As architects, we produce so much more than objects. Relaying that understanding to infiltrate public opinion is critical, not only to staying relevant disciplinarily, but is actually central to our responsibility to nudge societal progress.

Epistemologies, not ontology.

I’m eager for the next chapter, though I don’t think we are in position, just yet, to say what exactly that next chapter is — and me, in particular, on this non-traditional pathway, I need another decade or so for things to play out.

Q: What is influencing your work the most right now?

Shaping perception is still the goal. I do believe that Architecture, as a process, as a practice and as a tool for achieving outcomes is capable of advancing that goal.

I am a phenomenologist, (a behaviorist) and a humanist, as much as I am (almost) an architect. Climate is embedded. Economics are embedded. Measuring process and people-centered outcomes is crucial.

BIM just doesn’t do that… but maybe it could!


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