by AIA New York
Through teaching, writing and practice, Joel Sanders, FAIA, Principal, Joel Sanders Architect, has pioneered the examination of the relationship between architecture, gender, and embodied experience, producing design research projects committed to the creation of inclusive spaces that meet the needs of people of different ages, genders and disabilities. In addition to running his New York City-based studio, Sanders is a Professor of Architecture at Yale University and was previously the Director of the Graduate Program in Architecture at Parsons School of Design and an Assistant Professor at Princeton University. The editor of Stud: Architectures of Masculinity (Princeton Architectural Press, 1996), he frequently writes about art and design, most recently in Pin-up, Art Forum, and the Harvard Design Magazine. Sanders serves on committees and panels on behalf of the American Academy in Rome, MacDowell Colony, American Institute of Architects, Architectural League, the GSA Peer Review, and Van Alen Institute’s Program Leadership Council.
The Jury of Fellows of the AIA elevated Sanders to the College of Fellows in the second category of Fellowship, which recognizes architects who have made efforts “To advance the science and art of planning and building by advancing the standards of architectural education, training, and practice,” according to the organization’s definition. Sanders was recognized at the New Fellows Reception hosted by AIA New York and at an investiture ceremony at the AIA Conference on Architecture.
Q: What is influencing your work the most right now?
A: My work draws inspiration from activists from different disciplines who are trying to make the world more equitable for people who fall out of the cultural mainstream. I have been lucky enough to collaborate with two of them, transgender historian Susan Stryker and legal scholar Terry Kogan to develop Stalled!, a project which takes its point of departure as the debate over transgender people’s access to public restrooms to create inclusive guidelines that take into consideration ALL people—of different ages, genders, religions and disabilities. In June 2018, we launched Stalled! Online, which compiles three years of research into an open-source website that makes our work accessible to a wider audience. Since then, Stalled! has received such positive feedback, and we have been busy coordinating lectures and workshops internationally.
Q: What has been particularly challenging in your recent work?
A: When we launched Stalled!, one of our initiatives was to amend the International Plumbing Code (IPC), the model governing construction across the US. The IPC used to require separate facilities for each sex. Working with The National Center for Transgender Equality and representatives of the AIA, Stalled! was successful in amending the code to make multi-user all-gender facilities code compliant. I see this as a success story of how architects, typically working in silos, can join forces with experts from other arenas—lawyers, code consultants, and activists—to address the design consequences of urgent social justice issues and foster change.
Q: What are some your favorite recent projects you’ve worked on?
A: JSA completed the exhibition design for the renovation of the Stockholm Nationalmuseum that opened in October. We developed a standardized family of display components including walls, platforms, labels, pedestals, and glass cases that could be adapted to the museum’s three different room types: galleries, cabinets, and pillar halls. Looking back, the design process has been as rewarding as seeing the completed project: working with my Nationalmuseum colleagues has pushed me out of my comfort zone and acquainted me with a new, more inclusive, horizontal way of working that is characteristically Swedish. This project prompted me to launch Inclusive Museums, a project that focuses on going beyond the ADA, and coming up with a toolkit of design recommendations for making the museum experience accessible for people of different identities and embodiments.
Q: What do you see as an architect’s role—and responsibility—within our culture?
A: I believe that architects must jettison the model of the arrogant uncompromising architect made famous by Howard Roarke in Ayn Rand’s Fountainhead, a sole practitioner who through design alone architects should embrace a collaborative research-based design approach that assembles people from different disciplines and perspectives to explore the spatial consequences of urgent social and environmental issues. If designers hope to contribute to addressing issues from diversity and inclusion to climate change, they must adopt a collaborative design approach and join forces with people with different disciplinary expertise.
Q: What are your thoughts on architectural education today?
Architectural education should teach students how to negotiate between the more theoretical pursuits of the academy and the practical aspects of the profession, and demonstrate how ideas generated in the university can be applied to solve urgent social, political, and environmental issues. As an academic and principal of my own design studio, JSA, I live this challenge: my research-based design approach begins in seminars that I then develop through research and writings which in turn directly informs JSA residential and institutional commissions. I try to teach by example: to demonstrate that teaching and practice are mutually reinforcing activities.
Editors’ Note: This feature is part of a series celebrating the members of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) New York Chapter who are elevated each year to the AIA College of Fellows, an honor awarded to members who have made significant contributions to both the profession and society. Learn more about Fellowship here.