Pamela Palma

The mission of the nonprofit Public Architecture is in its logo, at least for now: "Public Architecture puts the resources of architecture in the service of the public interest. We identify and solve practical problems of human interaction in the built environment and act as a catalyst for public discourse through education, advocacy and the design of public spaces and amenities."

The Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD) recently announced that Public Architecture's founder, John Peterson, was stepping down from his role as president to become the curator of the Loeb Fellowship, based at the GSD. The fellowship brings in 10 people involved in design from across the globe to study at the university for an academic year, and this year's class alone includes a talk show host, architects, and an urban designer in New York City's planning department. Peterson himself was a Loeb Fellow in 2006.

In an online post, Peterson explains that he'll move to a part-time role at Loeb this fall and start full-time next January. He plans to remain on the Public Architecture board. For him, this new position means a major geographic change (Public Architecture is based in San Francisco, the Loeb Fellowship is in Cambridge, Mass.), and in a phone conversation with ARCHITECT, Peterson explains that his own job change coincides with re-branding efforts for the nonprofit and The 1% program, which Public Architecture launched in 2005 (more on that to follow).

ARCHITECT: So why did you decide to take the Loeb Fellowship position?

JP: The organization, myself and working with the board, has been moving towards me shifting my role from a day-to-day operations role to being a much more narrowly defined role around strategy and major partnerships and vision. And the search committee reached out to me during that time when we were preparing for this transition, which we had been doing for over a year, and actually I turned it down or I sort of ignored it initially. And then they reached out to me directly or sort of personally, and I spent a little time and rethought—actually it might work with the goals that I have for my new role and the board has for my new role at Public Architecture, so it really fit into a transition that we were already looking at.

And the mission, the focus of these Loeb Fellowships are very much aligned with the work that Public Architecture does, the work that I've been doing with Public Architecture over the last 13-plus years. And it really allowed me to work in an institutional setting, for one, which I have never done. It allows me, I'm hoping to have a different and in some ways a broader, participate in a broader conversation about the value of the design of the built environment and social outcomes. And so, I think from a timing standpoint, and from an opportunity standpoint to grow the work that I've been doing and the focus that I've had, the Loeb Fellowship really fit extraordinarily well into that situation and so that's why I took it.

But there is also an opportunity—and I'm very interested in this—for the Loeb Fellowship to have a stronger voice and participate more aggressively in this conversation about how the design of the built environment can be used again as a tool for social gain.
Can you talk a little bit more about how the mission of Public Architecture is aligned with the Loeb Fellowship?
The Loeb Fellowship was started in the '70s, when there was an exodus from cities. Cities were really going through sort of a crisis period where there were riots around inequality, and cities were really in trouble. There was, through a gift of John Loeb, a vision to have an impact, particularly on cities at that time, and that vision has grown to include natural environments and rural and regional settings. How can the Harvard Graduate School of Design play a role in the impact of better city-making and the quality of cities. And like I said that's even expanded, so it's very similar at the core to what Public Architecture has been trying to do. It expresses itself in different ways, much of the fellowship's focus is around the support of 10 really talented and influential leaders and how to support the work that they are doing. But there is also an opportunity—and I'm very interested in this—for the Loeb Fellowship to have a stronger voice and participate more aggressively in this conversation about how the design of the built environment can be used again as a tool for social gain. (It already has a sort of external voice.) Again, back to the shared mission of the two groups.

How do you see that manifesting itself in terms of having a more external voice?
That's a very good question, and I don't know the answer to that. There is going to be a significant amount of time for me just to learn more about what those opportunities are and learn more about the Loeb Fellowship. I was a Loeb Fellow 10 years ago, but being a Loeb Fellow is different from being the curator of the Loeb Fellowship, and understanding the responsibilities there and the opportunity. So I am going to spend a fair amount of time meeting with stakeholders involved with the Loeb Fellowship, and meeting with other potential partners, and looking at what the opportunities are.

But some of the areas that I'm very interested in is how do we have a stronger collective voice, how does the current group of Loeb Fellows and the alumni network and, including those faculty and students of the GSD, express a more collective voice around issues that I think are urgent right now. So can we curate the thinking and the intellectual assets of the larger Loeb network in a way that can help to contribute to this larger conversation. So what does that look like—can we in fact gather those that are focused on different topics and help bring clarity to what overlaps in those topics, say the built environment and public health or the built environment in social equity or economic equity, and things like that. I realize I'm being a little vague, but it's a position I haven't taken yet, and at this point I'm really much more involved with thinking about or focusing on listening than I am on making any definitive decisions about any new directions for the Loeb Fellowship.

Do you see any potential partnerships with Public Architecture and the Loeb Fellowship?

I certainly think that's possible. I'm very interested in partnerships generally for the Loeb Fellowship, and it already has some really extraordinary partners. I want to expand on the partnerships of the Loeb Fellowship. I certainly don't have at this moment any specific ideas about how Public Architecture might be an ally, but again the missions are so aligned, it's hard to imagine that there isn't value in my experience and activity with both.

What was your own experience like as a Loeb Fellow?
I was really interested in expanding my understanding of how organizations grow and how organizations can better mature. That's an experience that I didn't have coming into the founding of Public Architecture. I went to an art school, I have a degree in fine arts and I have a degree in architecture, and I don't have training in nonprofit management or organizational development, so I was very much learning on the job and my learning curve was a very vertical one. So the fellowship really helped expand my understanding of the role of organizations, how organizations can better mature, how one can look at leadership, and my own role within Public Architecture. So I was sort of expanding my network, I was expanding my understanding and skill-sets while I was there, but it was just a part a piece of a larger trajectory for myself and frankly going back to the fellowship is just another expression of that trajectory. There are skills that I've learned that I can bring to the fellowship, and there is a tremendous amount more that I need to learn which I hope to learn through this new experience with the fellowship.

Public Architecture will be hiring a new executive director, which the organization hasn't had since John Cary left in 2010. What was the motivation for not hiring another executive director until now?
There was a lot that I wanted to do with Public Architecture within the traditional role of executive director, even though I had the title president. There were some things that I wanted to focus on, and I had an opportunity to do that. Also the organization is outgrowing, I think, the core skill-set that I bring. That's good news, when an organization begins to outgrow it the skill-set of it's founder. So we've just gotten to a point where I've done a lot of the things that I think that I can do with the organization in a staff position, and the organization needs to continue on a path where there are others that can do a better job than I can.

Doing what?
I'd like to be the old man Peterson that they trot out at big events ... and thank for kicking an organization off that's become far more successful than its founder ever was able to achieve or maybe even envision.

I think the opportunity here is to really expand the organization, to continue to innovate, to continue to develop new strategies, to respond to our mission. But there's a kind of operational growth and operational systems maturation that needs to happen, and that's really more someone with a stronger business acumen [that's] not where my strength is. So it's really bringing in a more mature business point of view and operational growth point of view and skill-set than I have.

Looking over your time as president, are you going to take away any kind of legacies or particular accomplishments that you'll be proud of?
I'll be really happy if Public Architecture thrives going forward. I'll be really happy if Public Architecture's trajectory accelerates after I take this new position. Then I'll have no qualms about, any thought that maybe I held it back. If that's true, that I held it back from an accelerated growth, I'll be happy to accept that in exchange for the health of Public Architecture and its success, so that would be really wonderful. I'd like to be the old man Peterson that they trot out at big events, and wheel out in some wheelchair and point at and clap to as the founder, and thank for kicking an organization off that's become far more successful than its founder ever was able to achieve or maybe even envision. That would be a good, that would be a wonderful thing.

What do you mean by growth?
It really has to do with mission impact, and our mission is tied to growth. As I mentioned, our goal is to improve communities using the design of the built environment as the tool. So inherently, the more impact that we can have on communities, the more we can change the culture and the behavior of the designers and the nonprofit leaders, the bigger our mission footprint is. And so in a simple way, growth—certainly with The 1% program—means more activity, more nonprofits seeking more services, more designers participating in The 1% program, more intellectual support for that activity, more resources to support that activity. So just our expansion in activity and resources is growth to us and also mission success.

Screenshot of The 1% program's current website.
Screenshot of The 1% program's current website.

You are also launching a new graphic identity for Public Architecture, and a new name and identity for The 1% program.

The new name is going to be 1+ ... and to be frank it's driven by two things. One, the Occupy movement has been more successful at defining what 1% means than we have, so we need to be humble about who won the branding wars, Public Architecture or the Occupy movement—the Occupy movement did. That's one reason that we've changed it, and the other reason is that it's actually a better expression of where we are, where The 1% program is as a program. The majority of our firm participants do more than 1%, the average is just over 2%, so it's a more accurate expression of how much pro bono service is being provided, and it also is a better expression of what it takes to get this work done successfully. It isn't just a firm, it's a whole collection of people, so it's a very additive experience, it's a very inclusive experience, and 1+ helps to convey that it's about inclusiveness and additive point of view.

So the "1" is still talking about 1%?
It certainly has origins in the creation of The 1%, and it still is related to the minimum required to participate in The 1% [program], a commitment of a minimum of 1% of billable hours to pro bono service, that's the price of admission to join The 1% program. So that will remain the same. So one still has meaning in our history and one still has meaning in the value of participation.

And then the "+" would mean...
Beyond. So 1+ meaning more than 1%, and more than just any one group or designer or entity, these are complex problems that require a large group of participants and experts and stakeholders.

So when is that going to be launched?
We're going to have a soft launch at the AIA Convention in May, and then we'll be launching the name soon after that. Summer, probably, in early to mid summer ... There will be a website component that's specifically tailored to AIA members that will launch, and then we'll share with them the new name 1+.

Public Architecture's current logo.
Public Architecture's current logo.
And what about Public Architecture, is the name staying the same?
The name is staying the same, but if you know what our logo looks like you'll understand that it was a logo that was developed, a great logo, but was developed really before a digital identity became so critical to survival. It's not a logo that survives as well in a digital format, so we're overdue for a makeover on the graphic identity of Public Architecture for that simple mechanical reason.

When is that one going to launch?
I think that we'll show that mark [at the AIA Convention], but it's really the 1+ mark that we're going to launch. We're going to soft launch, but I think we're going to show both. But really the hard launch will be early to mid summer.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.