Brian Phillips, AIA
Photography: Carl Bower

Brian Phillips, AIA, is the founding principal of Interface Studio Architects (ISA), an award-winning Philadelphia-based firm. He’s also a committed supporter of designing for the public interest, working closely with Public Architecture and its 1+ program to give back to the community. But to Phillips, who also teaches at Parsons The New School for Design, “giving back” should—and does—mean much more than just donating time and energy to specific projects of local benefit. All projects, he says, are public interest projects.

Whether you’re aware of it or not, whenever you make a building you’re impacting the public. At ISA, we start there with our work— and with that mindset, there’s no way for us to not be involved.

Each project we engage with comes with a different level of consciousness about public interest, and different ways to make an impact. Regardless of what’s in front of you—be it a strip mall or a school—the best way forward is to ask, “How can I amplify the social impact associated with this project?”

What I admire most about Public Architecture and 1+ is the straightforwardness of the approach. Asking for one percent of your time allows anybody from any perspective to engage. We’ve made productive connections through these initiatives, which have allowed us to deepen our engagement with public interest work.

One important relationship that emerged from one of these events was our collaboration with Brooklyn, N.Y.–based HealthxDesign, a consultant we now work with to examine how spatial design can be measured against health outcomes. So much of public interest design is finding the right collaborators, and one of the program’s best assets is creating an incredibly powerful network of like-minded people.

When it comes to young people getting involved in public design, what they may lack in experience and resources they make up for in energy, time, and a fresh perspective. As a teacher, I am struck by the renewed consciousness I’ve seen in students over the last five years [and] they’re asking, “What does my career mean? How can I make the world better?” Questions like those go a long way towards integrating the idea of public interest into the basic fabric of how designers work.

There is an evolution going on, a generational shift, in how people relate to each other and how they feel about the community. In the recession, we lost a lot of experienced architects; we’re still nowhere near where we were in 2005, and it might be a permanent gap at this point. But in a way it reduced the number of architects who were thinking small. The downturn allowed the profession, on some level, to be redefined.—As told to Steve Cimino