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University of Minnesota
University of Minnesota

Making the house a home

September 26, 2008

Landscape of a residential complex.

Students in the interior design program at the College of Design are learning how to create culturally sensitive housing. Pictured here is the landscape of a residential complex that includes gardening plots for families to grow plants for cooking and medicinal purposes.

U students are creating culturally sensitive designs for new homes.

By Pauline Oo

A common feature of a Chinese home is a well-ventilated kitchen, so the smell of stir-fried shrimp in garlic sauce, for example, or chicken in simmering coconut curry doesn't permeate the rest of the house. However, a Chinese transplant in the United States, especially one living in a rented apartment, might not have the luxury of, say, that kitchen window near the stove.

In DHA 3605, an interior design course at the University of Minnesota, third-year students are learning how to notice such cultural needs and to create or fashion houses that could host an assortment of lifestyles. They're studying what Tasoulla Hadjiyanni, their teacher, calls "culturally sensitive housing."

"Culturally sensitive housing is not culturally specific housing," says Hadjiyanni, an assistant professor of interior design. "There is no room for [the latter] in a culture like the U.S., where people move around, because you want to retain the resale value. Culturally sensitive housing is housing that supports diverse cultural needs, diverse ways of live."

Hadjiyanni, a Greek-Cypriot immigrant who grew up in Cyprus, teaches two sections of the course and focuses the classes' attention on minority groups and new immigrant groups in Minnesota—alternating between four, thus far. Last year, the students worked with Mexican and Ojibwe communities. In 2006, it was the Hmong and Ojibwe. This semester, they turn their attention toward Mexican and Somali households.

What sets Hadjiyanni's curriculum apart from other interior design classes is that it is rooted in her scholarly research. Students take the information and photographs Hadjiyanni has culled from personal interviews over the years with numerous displaced people and use them to create plans for brand-new interior spaces.

Displacement itself, says Hadjiyanni, "is enough to cause psychological trauma and then, if you cannot practice your religion or your traditions, it just adds mental and emotional strain on the families."

Hadjiyanni's findings reveal that inhabitants of a house will transform the significance and function of individual rooms, as well as adjust the aesthetics, to more closely align with their cultural identities.

"The Somalis will put triple layers of curtains because they like their rooms to be darker, and they will decorate their walls with rugs that have koranic verses," she explains. "The Hmong will put up tropical scenes and use the color green to remind them of the mountains they came from. Illegal Mexicans who cross the Rio Grande by foot—and can't bring anything with them—would hang a calendar with the Virgin of Guadalupe to create a sense of home in the house they end up sharing with four or five strangers.

"We know that people are really creative, and they will find a way to retain their sense of Ojibeweness, Mexicaness, or Hmongness in the home," continues Hadjiyanni. "So, in class we're looking at what it is that we, as interior designers, could be doing."

The course culminates at the Hennepin History Museum with students displaying design proposals that show how a particular cultural group can preserve its traditions and practices amidst strong American influences. For example, a student drawing may offer a fireplace as a ‘central post' or gathering place for Hmong families to share stories. (A central post is characteristic of Hmong homes in Laos.) Or show a kitchen with something as simple as a door, which can be closed to allow a Somali woman to cook unveiled. (In an open kitchen plan, a Muslim woman must cook veiled if there are unrelated men, like friends or second cousins, nearby.)

The month long "Building Ties" exhibit, as it's known, is an effort to raise awareness among policy makers and the general public "about who these people who are living in are communities are and the issues they face," explains Hadjiyanni. "And hopefully, to come out with culturally sensitive policies [that are currently lacking]."

"I did not fully understand [the term culturally sensitive housing] until I began involving myself with another culture—researching it, visiting community members, and discussing it in class," says senior Alyssa Ludwig, whose design decisions were influenced by the craft-making traditions of the Ojibwe. (She included a craft center in her home design.) "I've learned that not all buildings, houses specifically, are suited for the needs of all cultural groups. This course made design something more than a physical entity, it put heart and meaning into the very bones of the physical structure. I found this very inspiring as a designer."

Hadjiyanni believes that her students start to understand how it might feel to "lose your language, your family, your things that you decorate with." They begin to see, she says, "the ‘other' through the eyes of themselves."

Although, Hadjiyanni's class is only working on designs for residential dwellings, culturally sensitive designs are equally important for other buildings, such as hospitals, schools, and airports.

"It has to go everywhere," she says. "It's almost like green design. It took years for that to be so mainstream. Celebrating differences and caring for differences is huge because of globalization forces."