John Peterson, founder of the nonprofit Public Architecture, is a busy man. He spent last year as a Loeb Fellow at Harvard University, immersed in the intricacies of social entrepreneurship. This year, he's running his own four-person San Francisco firm, Peterson Architecture, and traveling around the country to promote public-spirited design. And this month, at the AIA national convention, Public Architecture receives the 2007 Institute Honor for Collaborative Achievement.

When I talk to Peterson, he's in San Francisco and in a reflective mood. “There is a current interest in merging a more progressive attitude toward design with a progressive social agenda,” he says. “Previously, there was a reluctance to combine those two—they ran from each other. Those wearing the clothes of the socially progressive did not want to be associated with the avant-garde because it was seen as trite. On the other hand,” Peterson continues, “preaching a social agenda was seen as not being serious about design.”

Established in 2002, Public Architecture goes beyond simply mending that ideological rift. While the organization's output takes many forms—research, advocacy, and education; collaborative projects; a pro bono initiative called the 1% Solution—it consistently encourages architects be proactive, asking them to tackle issues of public interest with the same vigor and analytical insight generally reserved for high design.

John Peterson, the founder of Public Architecture.
Mendu Design John Peterson, the founder of Public Architecture.

“Public Architecture mobilizes designers to take on this role—identifying the problem rather than waiting to be engaged,” says Cynthia Smith, a curator at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York, which features the group's work in “Design for the Other 90%,” an exhibition that opens this month. “This [approach] holds the potential for new forms informed by the voices once silent, moving beyond traditional architecture,” Smith says.

Day Labor Station According to the 2006 study “On the Corner: Day Labor in the United States,” published by the Center for the Study of Urban Poverty at the University of California, Los Angeles, more than 100,000 laborers cluster on street corners and in Home Depot parking lots across America every day. These are informal employment centers: A pickup truck draws to the curb, several men pile in the bed, and the truck speeds off to a construction site or odd manual job. On a good day, the worker gets paid a low wage for filling an economic niche. On a bad day he waits, exposed to the elements, lacking bathroom facilities and a place to sit down.

Public Architecture's Day Labor Station offers a design solution to what is generally seen as a political or economic problem. The flexible structure (designed in-house by Peterson and colleagues) provides a seating area, which can also be used as a classroom, and it offers shade—all-important in hot weather. It is equipped with a kitchen and a restroom and is powered primarily by an array of photovoltaic panels. In fact, the steel-and-photovoltaic grid serves triple duty: Aside from generating energy, it forms a canopy during the day and, at night, folds down to secure the station.

General contractors Ryan Associates teamed with Public Architecture on the project, streamlining the design and redlining the drawings so that the station can actually be erected by the day laborers who will use it. The hope is that municipalities nationwide will install the semipermanent units where needed. Additionally, the construction company built, pro bono, the partial prototype that is on view, with a video and portraits of the laborers, May 4–Sept. 23 at the Cooper-Hewitt.

“As a company, we believe that involvement in our community is a socially responsible thing to do,” explains Jim Friedman, co-founder and owner of Ryan Associates. “[The day labor station] institutionalizes what is already an institution. If these things wind up dotting the landscape, it is a step in a great direction.”