In his keynote address at the 1968 National AIA Convention, civil rights leader Whitney Young told the audience, "You are not a profession that has distinguished itself by your social and civic contributions to the cause of civil rights. … You are most distinguished by your thunderous silence and your complete irrelevance." Forty-five years later, that searing declaration still registers. The quote opens the report issued by the 2011 recipients of the AIA Latrobe Prize. Released in July, Wisdom from the Field: Public Interest Architecture in Practice, the study compiles two years of research aimed at increasing the effectiveness of public interest work in architecture and disseminating strategies to increase the field’s impact.
The recipients of the biennial $100,000 grant awarded by the Fellows of the AIA set out to develop a needs-driven practice guide to address how “the dramatic social, economic, environmental, and technological changes that have occurred in the wake of the Great Recession” could help shift design to respond to community needs rather than client demand.
Increased global and social awareness, frequency of natural and environmental disasters, and disillusionment with the traditional career path in architecture have contributed to the growing attention that individuals and practices are giving public interest design. “Architecture is about changing the world,” says Sergio Palleroni, who authored the study with fellow Latrobe Prize recipients Roberta Feldman, professor emerita at the University of Illinois at Chicago; David Perkes, AIA, director of Gulf Coast Community Design Studio at Mississippi State University; and Bryan Bell, executive director of Design Corps. Nearly 30 years ago, when Palleroni, a senior fellow for the Institute for Sustainable Solutions and an architecture professor at Portland State University, helped in the reconstruction of Mexico City following the 1985 earthquake, the volunteer effort had little precedent. “We were making it up as we went,” he says. Now, more than 70 percent of architecture schools have design/build programs, many with a social agenda for communities in need. “It’s been a boom,” he says.
Numerous organizations have formed with public interest and community-based design as their mission. These include nonprofit entities, such as Architects Without Borders, Scale Africa, Public Architecture, and Architecture for Humanity, and for-profit practices that provide between 1 percent and 10 percent of their services pro bono, such as Perkins+Will and HOK. Representatives from these groups as well as from academic and cultural institutions, governmental, nongovernmental, and community organizations were among the 383 AIA members, 100 public interest practitioners, and 50 global and domestic partners interviewed as part of the research.
Their 145-page report discusses the survey findings, interviews, and workshops conducted by the researchers, along with strategies to sustain and grow public interest design into a more prominent sector in the profession. The survey, for instance, found that 30 percent of respondents entered the design profession to engage in public interest design. It also found that the lack of jobs, a decent salary, and on-the-job training inhibited practitioners from entering the sector.
The report also documents strategies in public interest design with proven success, such as community engagement. Palleroni was floored by the creativity and innovation that practitioners exhibited in the field. “If I mapped the number of ways that people are engaging communities, it’s mind blowing,” he says. He cited the example of John Norton, president of the NGO Development Workshop, based in Lauzerte, France, who helped educate Vietnamese communities on emergency response guidelines due to cyclone through song, a traditional way of communication.
Recommendations from the report include: increasing recognition of public interest design in the profession; integrating the field into the licensing and accreditation process; publicizing the architectural profession’s public service values; creating internship opportunities in public interests practices; expanding funding sources and opportunities; and educating professionals and students about public interest design.
Though the authors assign many action items to industry organizations, namely AIA, NCARB, ACSA, and NAAB, Palleroni says that the agencies alone cannot fulfill the need for public interest design. “This is not going to be solved by one agency; it's going to be solved by multiple initiatives nationally,” he says. “The strength of a community-based process comes from the distribution [of knowledge and experience].”
Individuals interested in becoming involved in public interest design have “multiple points of entry,” Palleroni says. They can research organizations such as the SEED Network, DesignCorps, Architecture for Humanity, Public Architecture, and Architects Without Borders, and reach out to practices engaged in needs-based design for advice.
Public interest allows architects to become involved with services to which the profession may never have contributed in the past, such as developing food programs, identifying funding opportunities, and educating community members, Palleroni says. In turn, the profession becomes more satisfying. By compiling the stories, case studies, and economic models of 120 diverse practices, he says, the report is a resource for individuals and organizations interested in solving large-scale problems “that address complex, long-term societal problems and have broad public benefit.”
“Every time you step into the door of the public interest process, you’re going to be doing things that nobody taught you in school,” Palleroni says. “But you know that you’ll be turning new ground.”