Social Action in Architecture Practice
Michael Gleenwood

For Donna Sink, AIA, inspiration came in the form of 13 acres worth of Teflon-coated fiberglass. In late 2008, when the former home of the Indianapolis Colts—the RCA Dome—was slated for demolition, People for Urban Progress (PUP), the nonprofit design organization where Sink is a board member, saw a chance to create salable products from the dome’s fabric air-supported roof. “We’re selling goods so that we can do good work in the city,” says Sink, who also serves as the campus architect at the Indianapolis Museum of Art.

PUP’s line of products includes fashionable handbags, wallets, and dopp kits. In addition to diverting the massive amount of material from landfills, sales have raised over $70,000 to fund the nonprofit’s community design initiatives, like shade structures for local parks.

It’s civic engagement initiatives like this that Sink will present as the key to modern architecture and urban design at the AIA National Convention in Atlanta during her session “Cities Cleave: Social Action in Practices Both Traditional and Non.”

While teaching professional practice at Ball State University as the recession hit, Sink saw the fretting among her students as the architecture job pool continued to drain. She believes young architects will need to forge a less-traditional career path but, despite their employment status, young architects are equipped with skills to create small-scale interventions that can demonstrate thought leadership and have significant impact on the citizens of their city. They are more than capable, Sink says, of creating simple solutions, like seating and shelters at bus stops that sorely need them or drawing maps detailing the best biking routes through their city.

“For my students, I started researching people who had found a new path in architecture using their skills, even if they couldn’t find a job in a firm,” Sink says. “I want young architects—and all architects, actually—to look at their world and their communities and say, ‘I see a problem. What can I do to solve this problem?’

”Instilling architects with the drive to provide solutions, rather than waiting for clients with existing problems to appear, carries with it the added bonus of demonstrating the profession’s value to a public that may not fully understand its importance. And where those social strategies intersect with resilience, there’s a real opportunity for architects to create uniform policy on a national stage, says Sherry-Lea Bloodworth Botop, executive director of the Architects Foundation. To help further that cause, the foundation is on course to launch the National Resilience Initiative. A part of the Clinton Global Initiative’s Commitments to Action, the program is envisioned as a network of five regional resilience design studios that will provide opportunities for collaboration and innovative solutions. “If there is a seismic incident in San Francisco, for example, we
would engage the Midwest studio that is also working on seismic resilience that could jump in and help if the city is overwhelmed,” she says. “To me, this demonstrates the value of architects by involving them in creating design solutions.”

David Dixon, FAIA, a senior principal at Stantec and leader of the firm’s Urban Places Group, oversaw the master plan for post-Katrina New Orleans. He sees an opportunity for architects to leverage their knowledge and compete for dollars in the federal government’s discretionary budget to fix the infrastructure issues in U.S. cities.

“I don’t think we pay enough attention to how much leadership potential and influence we can have when people start thinking about how they can reshape the built environment,” Dixon says. “One of the things that the profession really needs to do is develop a resilience agenda that is not just about protecting places but also about building quality of life.”

Regardless of where the path leads, it begins with architects working in their communities, says Sink, who notes that while most would define “cleave” as a verb that means to split or sever, it also has a secondary meaning of attachment.

“As architects … we’re poets and we’re pragmatists. We occupy this world of being two things at the same time, and we need to embrace that,” Sink says. “There’s this word, ‘cleave,’ that means two things at once and that, to me, really defines what architects are in many, many ways.