Published April 11, 2022
What do Chautauqua County and Central Africa have in common?
Most people would struggle to answer that question, but not Korydon Smith, chair and professor in the Department of Architecture, School of Architecture and Planning, and co-director of UB’s Community for Global Health Equity. With his precise and unusual expertise in inclusive design projects, Smith creates design solutions for those around the world who’ve been marginalized in the decisions made about their built environment. Most recently, he helped build a coffee production facility in the Democratic Republic of the Congo for workers who lost limbs to landmines and unexploded ordnance in that war-scarred Central African nation.
Smith’s research and work have taken him to Costa Rica, India, Rwanda and Uganda, as well as to the rural American South. In 2020, he published his seventh book, Transforming Global Health, with co-author Pavani Ram, a research professor affiliated with UB.
Smith grew up relatively poor in the Southern Tier countryside. “I guarantee you’ve never been through there,” Smith says of Cassadaga (population 600) and the nearby towns in Chautauqua County where he was raised by various family members.
“I grew up being outside in farm world. My father was very much in the building trades. My grandfather was a machinist, very hands-on work.”
Which brings us back to what Chautauqua County and Central Africa have in common.
“Many of the travels I’ve done in East and Central Africa, I’ve seen the same kind of ingenuity and tenacity that it takes to live in a place that doesn’t have a lot of resources,” Smith says. “Rural America is also one of those places where the infrastructure, the hospitals, the education system aren’t as strong as they tend to be in urban environments. But nevertheless people have a great deal of ingenuity and tenacity in coping with daily life.
“Just the creative reuse of all kinds of materials,” he continues. “My grandfather used to make jewelry out of coins and automotive parts, tools. And I remember one place I visited in Rwanda was a little restaurant-bar, and rather than a door they had a kind of beaded curtain. And as I looked at it more closely, they were all bottle caps that were folded in half around strings, carefully selected individual bottle caps of a specific color. It was just beautiful.”
Growing up amid all that practical hands-on design made Smith, the first in his immediate family to attend college, a natural to choose architecture as a profession. As a UB undergrad he was influenced by professor and mentor Beth Tauke, now a colleague in the architecture faculty, to become an architectural educator and stayed on at UB for his master’s. From there he joined the University of Arkansas faculty and headed a project on affordable and accessible housing in which he spent three years visiting nearly every county in the state to interview “disability advocacy organizations, affordable housing organizations and people with disabilities.” Near the end of his time in Arkansas, Smith did research in Rwanda, his first trip to sub-Saharan Africa. “And over the last 10 years my work has been almost exclusively in that region,” he says.
Next up for Smith is Colombia, where he will work with wounded survivors of that country’s decades-long civil conflict, which has been on hold since 2016. “We’re working with the Colombian National Police to help provide additional training, rehabilitation, psychological counseling, as well as improve the built environment, for those who have come across landmines, particularly in rural areas, and will experience visual impairment, limb loss and other things,” he says. “My piece is to assess health care, educational and recreation facilities, trying to improve design to meet the needs of those folks.”
Smith, who lives with his wife and two sons in Amherst near the South Campus, says he’s got another project on tap: the Hayseeds, the band he and his wife, Julie Haase-Smith (MSW ’01), started as UB undergrads and are in the process of reviving. “During the pandemic I got the itch again to write songs.”
The Hayseeds—a nod to Smith’s rural roots? “My wife and I met in second grade, and the joke is we didn’t start dating till third grade. But actually,” he says with a laugh, “not till senior year.”
Story by Jeff Z. Klein
Photograph by Douglas Levere