Courtesy Archeworks

In 1994, Stanley Tigerman, FAIA, and Eva Maddox, Assoc. AIA, founded Archeworks as an alternative design school, in Chicago, to appeal to socially conscious students and professionals. The yearlong part-time program leading to an unaccredited certificate was set up as a “night school,” as Tigerman called it at the time.

Under their leadership, the institution tackled social issues from a design and research point of view. But they weren’t simply trying to save the world through design. They were also building a specific culture of ethical practice. This extended to their choice of language: Archework faculty members were called facilitators; students were called interns.

At times, Archeworks was like the Island of Misfit Toys in the Christmas classic Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964), filled with square-wheeled cabooses and cowboys astride ostriches. But the school also shared the movie’s optimism, rooted in the belief that design could advance social progress, particularly in areas of need, where design was often absent.

After Tigerman and Maddox retired in 2008, Archeworks entered a multiyear period of uncertainty. Then, in 2015, Andrew Balster, 37, took the reins and set about updating the school’s format to align it better with the evolution of architectural practice while preserving its mission.

Andrew Balster
Courtesy Archeworks Andrew Balster

A Milwaukee native, Balster had worked for legendary architect Ralph Rapson, in Minneapolis, and in Skidmore Owings & Merrill’s (SOM’s) Chicago office before running Virginia Tech’s Chicago Studio, a program that embeds students from the university’s School of Architecture + Design into several local offices (many of which are now backers and collaborators of Archeworks).

Interdisciplinary work has always been the norm at Archeworks, which pursues two to three projects each year. Its first notable output was an eye-catching prosthetic headpointer for individuals with cerebral palsy to use to interact with a computer. Funded by the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, the project’s design was greatly influenced by an Archeworks “intern” who had left Nike to pursue less-corporate interests.

In fact, many of the people who came for Archeworks one-year certificate program were do-gooders retreating from the corporate world, or designers looking for an alternate to the city’s more pedantic architectural programs. Some projects, such as the headpointer, had big backers. Others did not, like an unsolicited initiative to help the Chicago Public Schools teach art to students.

Tigerman referred to the part-time program as a “night school,” and Balster has retained that approach. Each class now tackles just one project, but splits into smaller groups of four to five people to produce multiple solutions.

Courtesy Archeworks

The postgraduate certificate in Public Interest Design, a name conjured by Balster, is the thread that connects Archeworks’ current initiatives to its origins. “The certificate is the foundation of the school,” he says. This year’s spring term saw 24 students, one of the largest classes in Archeworks’ history. “It was a bit too large,” Balster admits. The current class numbers at 11 “by design,” he says, and will look at specific solutions for the National Public Housing Museum.

Balster is also forging alliances with local architectural firms. Archeworks’ new Fellowship program places local professionals in the certificate program. In less than two years, the program has been supported by CannonDesign, SOM, G|R|E|C Architects, Von Wiese Associates, and Perkins+Will.

Each firm commits to send two to four people and cover their tuition, which runs $3,100 per person for the 12-week program. “It helps foster a sense of autonomy from the office,” Balster says. Firms also provide support by sending staff to critiques. This year’s class includes six fellows—a pair of students each from local firm Landon Bone Baker, the Chicago Architecture Foundation, and the local office of CannonDesign.

“It’s an opportunity for my people to know the real social implications of our work,” says CannonDesign office practice leader Tim Swanson, who first met Balster a decade ago when they both worked at SOM. He encourages his current colleagues to apply in order to foster the type of designer he wants under his wing. “I want to find a new generation of architects who give a damn,” he says. “The traditional role of the architect is not the way to go. We need to become radically inclusive.”

Courtesy Archeworks

Monica Chadha could be the poster child for Archeworks’ mission, past and present. During her time at Archeworks two decades ago, the Chicago architect helped activate public parks in Chicago’s West Humboldt Park neighborhood. The experience solidified her interest in community-driven development, architecture, and design. “It was a formative year,” she says.

Following Archeworks, Chadha spent five years at Ross Barney Architects and three years working for Studio Gang before starting her own shop, Civic Projects, in 2014. Her practice provides design through community engagement and collaborative efforts to further economic development in underserved neighborhoods.

Chadha remains close to Archeworks and applauds Balster’s changes to the program, including his cultivation of corporate architectural backers and addition of academic alliances. “He hasn’t lost the certificate program, but it’s evolving,” she says. “He’s using it as a laboratory in ways that it wasn’t before. It’s more dynamic.”