Claire Coletti dreams of cities that are welcoming and affordable for everyone.
Coletti, who has earned undergraduate and master’s degrees in architecture at Northeastern, has come to see her search for inclusive architecture from the perspective of her transgender identity.
“One of the reasons why I’m so passionate about this is that I do have a unique perspective,” says Coletti. “As a queer person, as a transgender person, the idea of chosen family is so important.”
Her desire for a “normal life,” as she puts it, has helped drive her work.
“There is a huge part of me that has to reckon with the notion that I have this really internal desire to have that husband and kids and dog and the white picket fence—all those things,” Coletti says. “And it’s like, why do I want that so badly? Why do we as a culture want that so badly?”
Having grown up in south Florida, Coletti followed her twin sister—an art student—to Northeastern. It was while studying abroad at Humboldt University in Berlin that she was introduced to the concept of baugruppen, which she defines as “group build.” She clung to the ideal of inclusive community as she made her personal transition.
Coletti was an undergraduate when she launched BauBau, a co-operative housing concept seeded by the 2017 Northeastern Husky Startup Challenge. BauBau was a finalist last year in an international start-up accelerator designed for smart cities and urban solutions.
As much as Coletti felt excluded by the traditional ethos of community, which made her feel like an outsider, she also recognized that she wasn’t alone. In her presentations, including a 17-minute TEDxNortheasternU talk that she gave last March, she has noted that an emphasis on high-end urban housing has been pricing out the middle class as well as generations of young people who are already overwhelmed by student debt. Additionally, as argued by Coletti and others, urban design can contribute to widespread feelings of isolation and loneliness.
And so Coletti has yearned for a community of her own making—realizing that this dream unites her with people of all backgrounds and persuasions.
“What is the white picket fence? It’s but a wall,” she said. “It’s about keeping people out, and also keeping you in.”
Coletti presented her vision of what cities can and should be on Sept. 26 in front of an audience that included competitors and an international panel of judges at the Falling Walls Lab Boston. Her presentation was itself an achievement.
“I started the process of transitioning two or three years ago, and it’s an ongoing thing,” she says. “I’ve only been ‘out’ publicly for a year.”
Appearing in front of crowds has been “really anxiety-inducing,” she acknowledges, but being transgender has also helped her manage those feelings.
“Frankly, talking to a room full of people doesn’t scare me as much as walking out my front doors,” she says. “Talking in front of 100 people is less dangerous than just walking down the street.”
The Boston competition, held at Northeastern’s Raytheon Amphitheater last Thursday, brought Coletti together with 18 other finalists. Each of them was given a brief three minutes on stage to present a groundbreaking proposal and respond to questions from the judges. The winner, Soeren Brandt, a student at Harvard, earned a trip to Berlin in November for the Falling Walls Conference, which is held on the anniversary of the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall.
“The ambition of Falling Walls is to find ideas and innovations that will break walls to make the world a better place,” said Uta Poiger, dean of the College of Social Sciences and Humanities at Northeastern, and chair of the jury at Falling Walls Lab Boston.
Coletti took third place for an urban proposal that is both affordable and enriching—a community that would pull people together rather than splinter them apart.
Her vision of a communal future has been drawn from a variety of urban communities around the world. In Berlin there is not only Spreefeld, a co-operative of apartments, offices, and shared community spaces; but also the Urban Big Yard, for families with children of all ages. In California there is 28-year-old Muir Commons, which is based on the co-operative communities of Denmark.
Coletti’s own ideal remains under construction. She hopes to earn grants and fellowships as well as capital investment that will enable her to develop—in collaboration with its inhabitants—a community in Boston that may enable people to feel ownership, to feel belonging, to feel a sense of home.
“It has been a natural evolution on a lot of different levels,” she says.
She has realized that buildings are defined not only by their design but also by who lives inside.