By Brigid Moser
AIA Pittsburgh recently spoke with Dan Rothschild, FAIA, CEO of Rothschild Doyno Collaborative, about his work on The Tree of Life in Squirrel Hill. Rothschild has been part of the team working with the local community to reimagine the space after the tragic mass shooting of 2018. His efforts were recently featured in an in-depth article in National Geographic. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
AIA: Tell us about the work you have been doing with Studio Libeskind and the Tree of Life. How did you get involved?
Daniel Rothschild: I first got involved in the project when I received a phone call a month after the shooting from one of the Tree of Life Past Presidents. He told me the Tree of Life leadership had called an emergency meeting on a variety of topics, and one of those topics was what they should do with the building. Our name [Rothschild Doyno Collaborative] came up as a resource, most likely as a result of the architectural work we had done over the years in the Jewish community, including a small addition to Tree of Life in 1995. I wanted to be a helper, but I really wasn’t sure how, and at that time, there was a lot that was unknown.
AIA: What was your initial engagement with the community?
DR: Having a career built on working with communities, many of which have experienced trauma, our firm had created a flexible, interactive process to try to understand a community’s trauma, and how trauma-informed design can create safe, dignified, and empowered solutions. However, I knew that the trauma at Tree of Life was on a level that we had not experienced before. I suggested we select a small test group to go through one of our sessions and, at the end of those two hours, try to understand if the process had a positive effect on the attendees. If so, we could then roll this out to the community, not even knowing at that point how we would define community. We would call the process “Listening Sessions.”
The first Listening Session included participants writing down their thoughts in response to questions and prompts relating to social, physical, and economic issues surrounding the event. At the closure of that meeting, after sharing their thoughts and listening to the thoughts of others, I asked people to focus on one word that described what they were feeling. Some people got there quickly, others more slowly. We went around the room and the first word was “hopeful” and the second word was “optimistic.” There were also words of anger and frustration, but many seemed to be looking forward to the future. As each person said their word, I wrote it down on a big sheet of paper to make sure they knew their voices were heard.
A week later, I got feedback from the leaders of the group who said the responses from the participants were very positive. They felt it was therapeutic, cathartic, and they would be interested in expanding this to the community. So again, trying to be a helper and knowing that this first test went well, I said, “Let’s do this.”
It took 12 months to give everyone the opportunity to participate. One thing that is certain about trauma is that people process it at different speeds. It can also be cyclical, as you can process a traumatic event at a certain time, and then it comes back again, for a variety of reasons, whether there’s another similar event or something new in your life. The community needed time and space in order to be part of the process. In the end, I talked with 160 people, gathered over 2,000 comments, and captured their thoughts in a 54 page document. The process led to a resolution that the community wanted to rebuild on their site.
AIA: How did those conversations inform the project and the decisions that were made?
DR: The Listening Sessions had a positive effect on building trust with the community. And, as many architects would agree, trust with your clients is the very foundation of good design. When architects come in as “experts” and trust has not yet been built, it can yield a certain level of design experience and design outcome, but when trust is there, it’s a deeper and more meaningful outcome.
The power and the depth of trust is one of the strongest outcomes of working in this matter, whether it’s urban design, architectural design, or any other type of design. Understanding and being a good listener is the very foundation of a good design process, especially a collaborative design project. Whether you’re in schematic design, design development, construction documents or under construction, if that trust is there, it yields better outcomes. You’re part of a collaborative team.
AIA: How can architects be helpful when working in communities that have experienced trauma?
DR: When you’re beginning a process in a community and doing research on the context in which you’re about to be part of, think of the effects of trauma as an important contributing factor. Your analysis should be more than studying the physical aspects of orientation, topography, landmarks, things like that. Think of the social contexts of the people in the community, relating many aspects of their history, not necessarily just trauma. As architects become more comfortable as community leaders, we need to understand that our services are not just about the physical. Understanding trauma is a very important part of what architects can do when they get involved in communities.
Sometimes the analogy I use to explain trauma is the image of throwing a large rock into the middle of a calm, placid pond. When that happens, when that rock smashes into the water, the result is a series of ripples. The strongest ripples are right near the rock, and then the ripples migrate outward, getting successively smaller, until the entire pond is changed.
Looking at the events of 10/27, it was like a gigantic boulder that explosively disrupted the water. Its largest ripples were certainly the victims, the victims’ families, the survivors that were present, the responders. Outward of that, it deeply affected Squirrel Hill and the entire Pittsburgh community. Further ripples touched our entire country, which continues to deal with mass shootings and the rise of anti-Semitism. It is safe to say that the ripples of 10/27 reached around the world, with an understanding that although this was the Jewish community of Pittsburgh, that freedom to worship is a universal issue.
Tree of Life was certainly a highly charged context. And this acute trauma was easy to see. Other chronic types of trauma that communities experience can be hidden, having to do with racism, displacement, economic disparities, everything that has gone on in major cities around the country. Those are different stones and they’re different ripples. As architects, we would be serving our communities well by understanding the different types of trauma, the effects of those ripples, and potential solutions. A good resource in this manner is Dr. Mindy Fullilove’s book, Urban Alchemy, that provides guidance to restore joy to America’s cities that are sorted by race and class.
AIA: How does this project shape the way you will look at future projects?
DR: We are much more sensitive to the effects of trauma on design and more sensitive to trauma as a foundational aspect of the design process, which really includes deep listening at the very beginning. That’s why we use the term Listening Sessions. These are not sessions where we’re promoting design ideas, or what we think should happen. This is many, many steps before that.
I think architects are uniquely trained to be good listeners and can leverage that to understand trauma-informed design – really putting your ear to the ground and hearing what’s happened in these communities and how that would influence design outcomes. And it translates to what we like to call “meaningful design solutions,” not just designs that are beautiful, but design that is meaningful from a social, historical, cultural, and spiritual basis.
AIA: Is there any specific part of the plan that you think really speaks to that?
DR: Yes, collaborating with Studio Libeskind and understanding their history of working in trauma-related projects has been an incredible experience. The work they’ve done – designing the Jewish Museum in Berlin, in a country that was the originator of a Holocaust, to the master plan for Ground Zero in Manhattan, and other projects having to do with memorialization – is unparalleled.
Their depth of humanity in this area is amazing. From their earliest visit, they understood this incident as a very dark event. The design concept became “bringing light into the darkness.” Recovering from that darkness is something that we heard over and over, through the Listening Sessions and through ongoing interactions with the community. The design features a penetrating public space that cuts through the entire building and brings natural light into every space. It’s called the Path of Light, a reaction to this dark incident. It is the governing feature of the design, radiating heavenly light into every corner of the project.
AIA: What has been your favorite part of working on this project?
DR: The most enjoyable aspect is getting to support this valiant community in their journey, to not just survive, but thrive. It’s not just a beautiful physical outcome, it’s an outcome dealing with humanity, being a part of a humanitarian process.
AIA: Is there any advice you would give to other architects who are coming into a community that is experiencing trauma?
DR: Listen deeply, think humanely, and journey collaboratively with your community.