Editorial: Leading by Learning

Two visible-minority women take the lead in Ontario architecture schools.

Tammy Gaber at the Aalto Archives in Finland. Photo courtesy Tammy Gaber

Equity, diversity and inclusion have been important topics of discussion throughout the AED industry in the past year. Some of the most sustained conversations have been happening in Canada’s architecture schools, with measures underway ranging from curriculum reform to a re-examination of hiring and admission practices.

An encouraging sign of positive change is that two of these architecture schools are now headed by visible minority women. Chinese-American professor Juan Du is the new Dean of the John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design at the University of Toronto. Muslim-Canadian professor Tammy Gaber is the new Director of the McEwen School of Architecture at Laurentian University.

While Canadian architecture schools have had a strong history of being led by women, Du and Gaber are the first non-white women to assume the top position. Their new roles are a well-deserved outcome of their research and academic work. Simultaneously, Du and Gaber will be powerful standard-bearers for their institutions—and important agents for continuing to move architectural education in progressive directions.

Juan Du. Photo courtesy Daniels Faculty

Personal history has influenced the research work of both scholars. Du immigrated from China to the United States following primary school; she has studied and worked in Switzerland, Italy, Paris, and Hong Kong. “My bi-cultural heritage and multi-cultural professional experiences have contributed to a sense of curiosity and empathy, as well as an openness to other points of view. I have cultivated a body of work that is consistently conducted through multiple perspectives, and which tends to challenge monolithic narratives,” she says. “I’m suspicious when there’s a complex subject matter with 100 percent agreement.”

Du’s recent book, The Shenzhen Experiment, offers a counter-narrative to the popular notion that the Chinese mega-city is an “instant city” without history and its success is mainly attributed to top-down planning and centralized economic policies. Her decade-long research explores instead how Indigenous villages, migrant populations, informal economies, and bottom-up community actions have all shaped the city, through centuries of history. “Shenzhen is a city of 20 million, and I’ve learned to see this as a city of 20 million individuals, each with their own dreams, pursuits, challenges and contributions,” says Du.

Du hopes to bring a similar outlook to her work at Daniels, especially as the faculty responds to the interconnected issues of social justice, racial equity, Indigenous reconciliation, and the climate crisis—both inside and outside the walls of 1 Spadina. “These are the most urgent issues of our time,” says Du. “They are our biggest challenges going forward, but could potentially be our greatest contribution.”

Tammy Gaber’s identity and research are also directly intertwined. Her forthcoming book, Beyond the Divide: A Century of Canadian Mosque Design is part of a long-term Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC)-funded research project on the history of mosque building in Canada and women’s spaces within them. Gaber studied at the University of Waterloo and at the University of Cairo, and was one of the founding faculty of Laurentian University’s School of Architecture in 2013.

From its beginnings, the School adopted a tri-cultural anglophone, francophone, and Indigenous mandate that challenged the existing canon. Gaber’s research has become part of a first-year course on global sacred spaces, which invites students to connect with meaningful places from their own cultures, countries and communities. This fall, she’ll be working with graduate seminar students to examine Alvar Aalto’s designs, including his work on a mosque and five other Middle East projects.

Laurentian Architecture’s outgoing director, Métis architect David Fortin, says that while Middle East buildings may seem a long way from the school’s theme of Indigenous design, they are closely connected. “How does a program, such as a mosque, land meaningfully in a specific place?” he asks. “People sometimes think that prioritizing Indigeneity is parochial, but it’s really about understanding and respecting the place you are in.”

The idea of place-based design is also embedded in the structure of the school, where Indigenous Elders are invited guests to design studios, and activities open with land acknowledgments and Indigenous ceremony. For Gaber, this is an important symbol that “the architect is not all-knowing—it diffuses the usual focus on superstar personalities and designers.”

Both Gaber and Du share the conviction that leadership starts with a strong self-understanding of one’s own agency, and develops through constant learning—a belief attributable in part, perhaps, to negotiating their own identities as bi-cultural women.

“In my teaching, research, and community design projects, whether working with homeless communities in Hong Kong or migrant workers in China, I have felt that it is vital to stay intellectually curious and humble,” says Du. “Instead of immediately saying we are here to solve everything and save the world, we should ask: how can we generate new knowledge, and leverage knowledge as a tool for critical reflection, designed improvements, and ultimately, societal change?”

“Having Elders and knowledge-carriers as part of the design studios, I’ve learned so much, and that’s been a humbling experience to grow and learn,” says Gaber. “We need to be vulnerable to grow and to make new things. Making room for that vulnerability is as important for educators as it is for students.”