How can architects create positive social change in their work?
That's a question that John Peterson has devoted much of his career to answering. In the early 2000s, the architect disbanded his private practice—which had been devoted to building multimillion dollar homes—and founded the nonprofit organization Public Architecture. The group is devoted to helping designers find ways to use their craft to advance social good—particularly by encouraging pro bono work through its cornerstone 1+ program, in which architecture firms commit 1% of their billable hours to pro bono services. (Peterson is now the curator of the Loeb Fellowship at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, but he remains on the board of Public Architecture and guides the organization's strategy.)
Peterson says he's been paralyzed with despair since Donald Trump's election on November 9, but he's vowed to view the future without any magical thinking. Instead, he says it's time to get to work—a sentiment echoed by many across the design community. "In the face of the strife, in the face of the uncertainty, in the face of the sadness, I’m able to—and I believe most people are able to, if not everyone—find solace in doing," he says. "Or maybe even more importantly, find solacing in trying."
Co.Design spoke with Peterson about how architects can find ways to make a difference in their community and put their skills to work for good.
When Peterson was running his own practice, it began to take on bigger and bigger projects that would influence neighborhoods themselves. He realized he had to focus on the potential social impact of his work, and began to envision doing projects that originated with his architects and designers rather than a client. This became one of the founding ideas behind Public Architecture—for designers to not only be part of the solution, but to be empowered to identify which problems to solve.
Fueled initially by his practice, which eventually dissolved, Public Architecture's projects aimed to give architects the prerogative to propose solutions for the social issues they found most pressing. "If you’re concerned about an underserved population in your city, if you’re concerned about K-12 education, if you’re concerned about issues around nutrition and healthy foods, you can find a nonprofit who you can support as a designer," Peterson says. "Or if you want to be even more aggressive, or more proactive, you can pursue a project on your own that may not have an obvious client yet, or approach a nonprofit whose mission you’re aligned with, and propose a project together that they don’t see yet as an opportunity for them."
Identifying problems rather than just solutions requires a reversal in thinking. "Designers don’t necessarily think that way," he says. "They come out of school and they go looking for a job and then they go within firms. They wait for clients to approach them with projects. We have an opportunity to actually not wait for those projects. We can create those projects."
Firms spend plenty of time and resources entering architecture competitions. To Peterson, that seemed like a waste of time and effort, especially since only one design will be selected and built.
"I thought, why don’t we just create our own competition parameters?" he says. To come up with internally driven projects that address social issues, Peterson proposes using the same basic framework of a conventional competition to spur creativity and provide some structure within your team's thinking—especially because it can be difficult to find clients initially when implementing a proactive practice at your firm.
For example, in the early days of Public Architecture, Peterson posed a question to his team: What would a system of open green space in San Francisco's industrial-turned-startup-hub South of Market neighborhood—which hadn't been planned with green spaces in mind—look like? They came up with a proposal for a series of sidewalk plazas and presented it to city agencies, which resoundingly supported it. Though the proposal wasn't implemented, it got the city thinking about parklets—which today dot the urban landscape.
But what impact can design really have on complex social challenges? Peterson truly believes that it can be used to tackle problems as diverse as unemployment and political polarization. He points to another project from the early days of Public Architecture called the Day Labor Station, a structure resembling a large bus stop designed to provide a place of congregation for day laborers—workers who are paid by the day, usually for menial labor, and who often lack documentation. These laborers often gather informally in parking lots and other public places, but the Day Labor Station provides a space particularly designed for them. Inside, there are restrooms, seating, a kitchen to make and sell food, and a meeting room.
While the employment and immigration status of day laborers might seem like social issues beyond the purview of architects, in this project, Public Architecture took day laborers as their client and provided an architectural service that gave them a sense of ownership over a space despite the uncertainty of their jobs. Though the Day Labor Station was never built due to a lack of funding, Peterson says the proposal broadened the community's views of how design might play a role in making their lives better. This kind of socially focused design thinking is likely to become more important than ever before in addressing the needs of marginalized populations.
One of Public Architecture's early projects was called ScrapHouse. In 2005, Peterson and his colleagues built a house made from 100% salvaged materials in front of city hall in San Francisco. "It was more a piece of theater than it was a piece of architecture," he says. "But it was a demonstration project. It captured a lot of interest and helped shift people’s understanding and value of materials that we find in the waste stream or other salvage sources."
Even though ScrapHouse was built in six weeks and only existed for a few days before being returned to the recycling center, it had a clear social agenda, something that Peterson believes is an important element of designing for social good.
"Architects tend to like complicated messages for their projects," he says. "But that message was a lot more accessible to a larger number of people."
Beyond encouraging a proactive approach to practice, Public Architecture’s main initiative is to encourage firms across the country to pledge a donation of 1% of their billable time to pro bono work. Almost 1,600 firms have pledged to donate time to the so-called 1+ project since 2003, and Public Architecture serves as a kind of matchmaker, pairing firms with nonprofits and community groups that need their help.
While pursuing your own internal social impact projects can be difficult from a business standpoint, pro bono is a great option for firms that want to make giving back to the community a pillar of their mission. Pro tip: Peterson recommends setting a budget and invoicing the nonprofit in order to maintain a sense of the value of the firm’s time and resources, even if the bill comes out to $0.
"Designers can vote, so to speak, with their choice," Peterson says. By choosing projects and clients that align with their values—something that becomes easier with pro bono work, but can also be applied to conventional business as well—designers can actually make a social impact, something many are looking to do as the results of the election sink in.
"I think that designers can participate not only politically—as they should, as every American should—but they can participate with the choices that they make, with the clients they serve, and the outcomes they expect for their projects," he says. "You can use it in a sense as R&D within the firm. You can be more selective with your project and client types." He hopes that the current political climate will inspire firms to put energy behind a social agenda.
While Peterson acknowledged a general feeling of anguish and paralysis in the architecture community, exemplified by the controversy over the AIA supporting President-elect Trump's infrastructure agenda (and then rescinding that pledge due to backlash), he believes that creatives are in a unique position to advance their beliefs with the kinds of projects they take on—whether those are internal, pro bono, or paid.
"We do play an important role and you can direct your intentions and your values and your interests through your work," he says. "It’s not easy, though—it’s hard. There’s a responsibility that comes with that."
[All Photos: via Public Architecture]
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