The Ignite Series is a monthly interview of an artist, creator, or community organizer whose passion has inspired us. In honor of its subject, we create a collectible piece of matchbox art for our subscribers.
A native of Belgium and an architect by training, Larissa Begault has devoted her career to better understanding how the design of public spaces impacts how a city works for people and the environment.
Her research has been focused on New York City, but has taken her across the world, including Chile and Cuba. Our founder Harry sat down in her Brooklyn studio for a conversation that spanned architecture, gentrification, motherhood and the nostalgic power of lavender.
Harry Doull (HD): Hey Larissa! Let’s go way back—when did you first know you wanted to go into architecture?
Larissa Begault (LB): I decided very early on to become an architect—I think I was 12. I was very much into art, but also a very pragmatic person. I remember thinking that I could become an artist, and then thinking that it wasn’t affecting people in a direct way. And then, I thought "I'm pretty good at math, physics, let's be an architect." And after that decision was made, I never questioned it, which is very strange. Before that moment, I switched between a lot of different ideas, like becoming a vet, becoming this or that. The day I landed on becoming an architect, that was it.
HD: So you were a 12-year old with real conviction!
LB: (laughs) And after I made that decision, when my parents did small-scale renovations in their house, knowing that I had this idea, they always brought me on board. I started developing that interest very early on: reading magazines, going out of my way to look at different things, design things. From then on every decision I made was based around the idea that I was going to go into architecture school. And that’s what I did!
HD: Did architecture school meet your expectations?
LB: It was amazing. Studying architecture was exactly what I had hoped for. It's a really long process that involved really diverse experiences. I did three years at Brighton University (in the U.K.), which were really great, and had the chance to take a year off to do hands-on work. The university sponsored me to go work in Cuba for a year, which was a learning experience on so many levels.
Cuba was one of two work remote experiences (the other in Chile) where I got to do research work on community and neighborhood development, and emergency housing. Working in such different settings taught me a lot about the importance of place, and to avoid formulaic solutions. What works in London isn’t necessarily going to work in Havana. The other important thing I took away was how both these projects were centered around people, and required their participation for it to work. Without local input, these projects wouldn’t be viable.
One panel of the City Panorama collaboratively created for Philadelphia Assembled and exhibited at the Philadelphia Museum of Art
HD: Was this the gateway to thinking more deeply about public spaces?
LB: You could say that. After I came back, I spent the next two years following my “master”, Professor Carlos Villanueva Brandt. He was one of the the most influential people in my studies and he based his entire architecture course around the relationship between social structures, physical structures, and urban systems. It really taught me a lot about how a city works; it was amazing.
When I worked as an architect afterwards, I really missed thinking about these relationships. The profession has been reduced a lot; it has become very focused on physical design output, with very little on everything that is impacted by that design. As an architect, when you have a project, all the important decisions have been taken; the location (site), the program (what the building will be), the budget. So the decisions that we can make are basically the shape and materials, which I personally found limiting.
So after three years, I went on to do a masters in Urban Theory in New York City, to get back to these fundamental questions of architecture’s role in city making and society.
HD: It's funny—I just read yesterday, this piece in the New York Times that alluded to how the role of the architect changed after the 1920s. Up until that time architects were making the big calls around what the skyline should look like. There was no question that the role of those buildings was as much an emotional one as a functional, economic one. They were supposed to inspire awe and showcase New York as a cutting edge city.
LB: Yes, and from then on, it's been more and more pared down. I think even in mid-century architecture, the modernists had a social agenda—but there’s no doubt that today architects don't get to think of the city as one space. They just get to think of a building within a city.
“There are a lot of social justice movements and advocacy organisations gaining traction that intersect with community engagement, urban space, and sustainability”
HD: I’d like to come back to the disappointment of your first experience in the workplace. I’ve come across a lot of young people who had a very similar early career—where they studied architecture, loved studying it and getting that multi-disciplinary lens to understand the world.
But then, when they joined (often big) architecture firms, they felt really disappointed. Whereas their training essentially prepared them to tackle big picture problems and save the world, they were stuck in hyper-specialized work that lacked social impact.
What would be your advice to those people who just started that first job, and who are wondering whether they even want to continue doing architecture?
LB: Well, while I didn’t enjoy those three years, I definitely learned a lot. If you can stick with it for a bit, there are things to get out of it, even in those day-to-day tasks. You can understand so much of the politics of how decisions are made.
Architecture school gives you the tools to go and do a lot of different things too. And there's a lot of new thinking around ‘urban practice’, which would really benefit from these highly-skilled, “disappointed” architects. There are a lot of social justice movements and advocacy organisations gaining traction that intersect with community engagement, urban space, and sustainability—they are still short on designers and there’s an opportunity there for recent architecture grads.
HD: What are some of those movements that you find inspiring?
LB: There are so many great things happening. I really like the work of the Hester Street Collaborative, the Center for Urban Pedagogy, Design Trust for Public Space, Community Land Trust groups in East Harlem, WE ACT For Environmental Justice, …
Hester Street Collaborative
Hester Street is an urban planning, design and development nonprofit that works to ensure neighborhoods are shaped by the people who live in them. They offer planning, design and community development technical assistance with the goal of equitable, sustainable and resilient neighborhoods and cities.
The Center for Urban Pedagogy
The Center for Urban Pedagogy (CUP) is a nonprofit organization that uses the power of design and art to increase meaningful civic engagement particularly among underrepresented communities. CUP projects demystify the urban policy and planning issues that impact our communities, so that more individuals can better participate in shaping them.
The Design Trust
The Design Trust was founded in 1995 to unlock the potential of New York City's shared spaces. They are a nationally-recognized incubator that transforms and evolves the city's landscape with city agencies and community collaborators.
The East Harlem/El Barrio Community Land Trust
The East Harlem/El Barrio Community Land Trust (EHEBCLT) works to develop and preserve community-controlled, truly and permanently affordable housing, commercial, green and cultural spaces in East Harlem/El Barrio that prioritizes households of extremely low to low incomes.
WE ACT For Environmental Justic
WE ACT achieves its mission by accomplishing a clear set of goals linked to major issues impacting health and environmental justice. THey lift the voices of low-income, communities of color through their work on climate justice, clean air, good jobs, and sustainable + equitable land use.
HD: What is a community land trust?
LB: A community land trust is when public land is leased for a long term to a community. It’s separating the ownership of the building and the land, and essentially taking the land off the market forever. The first one in New York City was the Cooper Square Community Land Trust, in the East Village—it started in 1970 and it's still going strong. It's a smart way to have space run by the community who lives in it, and to keep the diverse fabric of the neighborhood together, and prevent mass displacement and the breaking down of communities.
HD: Really interesting, and a good segue into the broader discussion around gentrification and displacement in New York. Where do you think we're at today, and how has it changed over time?
LB: Well, it’s not great. It’s not just New York, but the United States is definitely further ahead than most European countries.
“For a city to run, you need everyone who participates in the city. That includes working-class jobs, teachers...you need these people to live locally. Otherwise, the city will fall apart”
HD: Further ahead in what sense?
LB: In the privatization of land, public space, amenities and the rollback of government responsibility to provide public housing. Now, real estate decisions are done for profit, not for people. Public space gets used as a bargaining tool by developers. “We’ll create some public space, if you’ll give us some extra floors we can build.”
And so, communities are happy at first, and then all of that gets built, land values explode, and more often than not, the communities who voted yes for the project possibly get displaced.
In Manhattan, it's already pretty much been accepted that you can't be poor and live there. It's becoming nearly impossible. And so, that land is no longer accessible to everyone, which I think is crazy. If cities go down this route, they are going to hit a huge issue: for a city to run, you need everyone who participates in the city. That includes working-class jobs, teachers... you need these people to live locally. Otherwise, the city will fall apart if we keep going that way.
HD: What do you think can be done as a solution to what's going on?
LB: It’s hard. I'm strongly in favor of a strong role by government on these matters, and that is challenging in this country. But if it were me, I would like for government to take back the responsibilities that it used to have and take charge of affordable housing, take charge of public space. There is room to raise some taxes, and to give residents more control over the lands they live in, rather than leaving it all in the hands of real estate investors.
HD: Well, that certainly looks like a long and difficult struggle… but the good ones generally are. On that note, let’s move off of big policy questions and talk about your personal life. So this guy [signaling towards Larissa’s son Hugo, 3 months old]... has he changed your perspective on the world, or the nature of your work?
LB: I don’t think it has really changed my outlook on life. That said, there has been one shift that I have found really surprising. Having him has made me feel way more in the present, in the doing; and less in the head, and in the thinking. I think being cerebral can take you in crazy spaces, but lately I have found that what really matters are the really simple, grounded, momentary interactions.
It does impact how I view my work. I wrote my thesis on the Domino Park in Williamsburg, before it was built, and it was hyper-critical. It's a big book, it's well thought out, and theoretically it all makes a lot of sense. But now, I want to go back and see the space as it is, understand how people interact with it, as a real thing in the moment. And maybe it will disprove our thesis completely.
I write a lot about the larger impacts and the politics of this and that. But with space, it's also very much about the moment, and if on a Sunday, it brings a diverse group to have, even just a moment in dialogue; or a different community is accessing this space, how can we have a new conclusion to this work? Having Hugo made me get out my head a bit and forced me to be more in the moment. I'm expressing it oddly, but do you get what I mean? [Hugo nods approvingly]
Larissa and Hugo
HD: I think I understand. You're so used to thinking about the underlying issues that it’s hard to take the time to appreciate what might already be good about…
LB: ...about spaces. You know, I was a bit gloomy, sounding like "There's nothing we can do!" Maybe there is value in understanding the really simple day-to-day experience of urban space. How can we harness those little moments and make sure that they continue to happen?
HD: Alright! Last question: what’s a smell in your life that inspires you, relaxes you, or has significant meaning for you?
LB: I am sure that’s a classic, but lavender is for me the most soothing smell. It takes me back to Europe, holidays and gives me a very satisfying sense of nostalgia. I get very satisfied when I'm nostalgic, and with lavender, I get it really strongly. One whiff before I go to bed, and I'm like, "Oh!" It just transports me, relaxes me, I love it. It's a classic, classic smell.
Larissa's light-filled home
Interview by Harry Doull
Artwork by Dan Abary
All photography courtesy of Larissa Begault (unless noted).
The Keap Ignite Series
We share something new and inspiring every month alongside our subscription candles. The Keap Ignite series is a 12-volume interview series with artists, creators and community leaders that have inspired us. For our subscribers, this takes the form of a collectible mini-zine and matchbox in each monthly package. Learn more about the Keap candle subscription.