Democracy problems: Jae Shin and Damon Rich on HECTOR’s design practice

This semester’s advanced urban design studio at the Gensler Family AAP NYC Center, Decks on Deck: Democratizing Urban Design, is led by designers Jae Shin and Damon Rich. Shin and Rich are partners at HECTOR, an award-winning firm recognized for practicing urban design, planning, and civic arts informed by traditions of visionary architecture, popular education, and community organizing.

Shin and Rich began their careers working as designers within municipal governments, including the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation and New York City Housing Authority, where democratic ideals meet the details of development. Their spring 2024 studio at AAP NYC engages in debates around democratizing design to study and speculate on design and development around and over New York City’s Sunnyside Yards.

Lydia Li: In addition to being educators, you are also cofounding partners at HECTOR, a firm with a bold and somewhat mysterious name specializing in urban design, planning, and civic arts. Firstly, what does the name mean? What does it mean for the design work you do?

HECTOR: We are a modest practice with large ambitions, so we tried for a mighty and classical name, like the Trojan leader in Homer’s Illiad! Also, as a verb, “to hector” means “to bully, intimidate, browbeat, harass, coerce, strong-arm, threaten, and menace,” which are just a few of the communication strategies we have had to use in the process of urban design. It’s never just a polite exchange, especially if you are trying to rejigger a design system with those who don’t usually get a major say in a planning or building project. If there are people and interests that have never been part of the process, that’s going to take a little bit of hectoring, right?

Between allies and antagonists, we’re never alone in our agendas. And, the way spatial politics might include all kinds of actors – heroes, paper pushers, villains – was also something we had in mind when registering the name HECTOR. It also stands for a few different phrases like How Every Culture Threatens Our Righteousness.

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