Joseph Kunkel, 2019 Obama Foundation Fellow

The community is the architect of their own vision and that vision is a long-term commitment to change.”

—Joseph Kunkel, 2019 Obama Foundation Fellow

Improving Communities through Culturally-Responsive Design

Joseph Kunkel

Buildings may be static, but they aren’t neutral. Obama Fellow Joseph Kunkel has spent his career studying how architecture can either reflect and honor a community—or do it harm.

We spoke with Joseph about the role architecture plays in building sustainable, inclusive, and forward-thinking communities in Indigenous communities. As Director at MASS Design Group and the Executive Director of Sustainable Native Communities, Joseph has also seen firsthand how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the Indian Country, and shown how architecture can help prevent the virus from spreading. Mass Design Group released the Role of Architecture in Fighting COVID-19, which offers guidance on how to improve physical spaces during this time, from senior centers to restaurant layouts.

Q. How important is the role of architecture in our daily lives?

A: We spend well over 75 percent of our life in buildings. If we’re not designing and thinking of the built environment that reflects the people, then we’re doing an injustice to those populations for sure. And so, how can we actually flip that on its head and use an architecture that reflects the community, that reflects the people, and that lifts up the kind of identities of who people are?

Joseph Kunkel, an Obama Fellow and Director at Mass Design Group holds up his laptop during a presentation on sustainable Native housing

Q: At your organization MASS Design Group, a core belief is ‘architecture is never neutral—it either helps or hurts.’ Could you elaborate on that?

A: If we look at our tribal housing, education, our healthcare systems, our food systems—those were very much the methods in which the United States government placed us in reservations. They promised us healthcare, they promised us housing. They promised us education and food, and yet every one of those spaces were inadequate, right?

If we look at our housing, you go down to Navajo, or you go up to Montana, or Dakota, it’s a housing type that doesn’t reflect the community, the culture, or the people that live there. Not being able to understand what home means from a cultural perspective has in many ways harmed our Indigenous populations.

Q: What inspired you to pursue a career in architecture?

A: Well, many, many things, but one thing was my grandfather. He was the Executive Director of the St. Labre Indian School and community members said if he wasn’t in that position, he would have been an architect. That kind of put a seed in my head when I was a little kid. But I really didn’t understand the power that architecture could actually bring in terms of influencing and thinking about society as a whole.

If we're not designing an environment that reflects the people living in it, then we're doing an injustice to those populations.”

—Joseph Kunkel, 2019 Obama Foundation Fellow

Q: You’ve emphasized the importance of understanding the community you’re designing for. What elements of your design work celebrates Indigenous values?

A: One thing would be taking into consideration orientation. Having the ability to kind of rise with the Sun, like opening the day or opening your front door to the rising Sun and orienting the entry of the building in that direction to always greet the Sun would be one example.

Another would be when families welcome visitors into their homes, ensuring that there are large gathering spaces, most likely living rooms, or kitchens that allow for many people to congregate and sit around a table and share a meal.

Another would be having the ability to practice your trade. One project that we did in Northern New Mexico, we ensured that every housing unit had an art studio attached to it. In the Pacific Northwest, that would translate into a place where you could dress whatever you gathered from a hunt or you went and did a fishing expedition.

Q: What role should the local community play in design work?

A: I like to say, the community is the architect of their own vision. And that vision is a long-term commitment to change. We as designers, architects, planners, engineers, we bring a process and facilitate conversations and bring kind of our technical know-how to the table, but it’s really the community that knows the community the best. We are there to listen, to hear them, and then hopefully interpret in a way that lifts up their voices.

Scenic New Mexico photo depicting MASS Design Group's work

Q: How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your community?

A: The issues that the Indian Country has been facing have been highly exacerbated due to COVID-19. But these are underlying issues that we’ve seen in our tribal communities, on our reservations, and in rural America even before COVID-19 hit. When we think about the built environment, their inability to access quality and healthy housing and the overcrowdedness that we’re seeing. With the support from McNulty Foundation, we were able to put together guidelines to support Tribal Housing Authorities, tribal housing directors, and tribal leaders, to better understand what they can do in the immediacy.


A glimpse at MASS Design's COVID-19 guide for senior citizens.

An excerpt from MASS Design’s COVID-19 guide for senior living centers, which is aimed at achieving infection control principles while offering solutions that allow people to safely come together.

Q: What can be done to build more inclusive societies that celebrate Indigenous peoples and acknowledge the history that is often left untold?

A: Some of the most resilient people are Indigenous peoples. We are in so many ways very resilient, given all the kinds of atrocities and genocides that we’ve had to persevere through. I don’t think those stories are lifted up. We must ask how we can share these stories in ways that allow us to progress and move towards a society that is more just. And I think if we’re able to convince others that we’re here and we’re part of everyday conversations, that would be even more empowering to the next generation of our Indigenous youth.

Read more of Joseph’s work featured in The Hill and Archinect, then learn more about MASS Design Group here.

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