Skip to Content

Design for Dignity

Design in the public interest sets a new course

“Most of [the students who choose to be activist architects] are not the really good students. Because it can also become an excuse and an easy option.”
 —  Farshid Moussavi, architect and Harvard educator, during a panel discussion in London last March.

I recently sat down with Julia Buzan, a young Yale graduate who wants to pursue architecture in graduate school. Buzan majored in international economic development, has worked overseas, and crafted an undergraduate thesis that devised ways to assess the impact of economic development investment in particular communities. In architecture, she sees the opportunity to think imaginatively about the future, rather than simply responding to past data. She wants to work in collaborative, interdisciplinary teams that directly connect with the audiences they serve and to use her analytical tools as a means to evaluate and improve the impact of design. If Buzan represents the type of student now entering architecture programs, I couldn’t be more optimistic about public-interest design and architectural education.

Excuse me, Professor Moussavi, but the times, they are a changin’.

Over the past year, publications from The New York Times to The Huffington Post have described the surging trend in public interest design, including among students and schools of architecture. “Public-interest design,” “community-based design,” “socially responsible design” — these terms are used interchangeably, but underlying all is the belief that good design can improve the lives of regular people and that these regular people should have a voice during the design process.

Despite the popular image of Gary Cooper’s character in The Fountainhead, Architecture (with a capital A) is not something cooked up by the singular genius, imposed on a naïve or ignorant public; rather it’s a discipline to be developed through listening to the people whom the structure or product or landscape or neighborhood will serve. That’s not to say that design training doesn’t matter and that architects shouldn’t play a leadership role, but the attitude is fundamentally collaborative. It’s design for — and with — the 99 percent.

Can public-interest architecture be taught? Of course! The same qualities that make a good architectural education also make a good public-interest architectural education: a broad liberal arts foundation; the ability to work across disciplines; an enthusiasm for diverse ideas; an awareness of the many contexts of design  (economic, political, social, technical, historical),  a desire to wrestle with those competing influences, and an ability to incorporate multiple agendas into a coherent, compelling architectural form; an entrepreneurial spirit; a desire to listen carefully, and the skill to apply that insight; good communication, both graphic and verbal; effective collaboration and teamwork. The lone genius need not apply.

Perhaps the better question about teaching public-interest design is: When?

Michael Meo has just finished his third semester of “core” curriculum in the Master of Architecture program at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. The core experience is somewhat akin to sixth grade, when one shares the same courses with the same students; electives don’t come until later. Most professional architecture programs follow a similar curricular pattern because no matter their ultimate specialization, all students need to learn the basics of design principles, structures and other building technologies, architectural history and theory, and techniques of representation. It’s a time ripe for indoctrination and a time when individual brilliance often seems to prevail.

Meo comes from Hampshire College, a curriculum in which students design their own path. It couldn’t be more different from GSD core. His senior thesis included orchestrating a community-based design process, ending with the student-led design, construc-tion, and transformation of the Hampshire College Library. He’s explored participatory design in international contexts as well, having been selected as a US delegate on teams that worked in the Philippines and Korea. He chose the GSD over other elite masters programs because he was turned off at the beautiful but vacuous student work and paternalistic attitudes he saw elsewhere. The GSD seemed to offer the place where he could most vigorously pursue his passion. But core?

I expected Meo to hate the experience. Instead, I found him to be happy and thriving. His studios so far have focused on the language of architecture and its geometry; even his most recent “comprehensive” studio included only technical considerations. Any social context has been completely brushed aside. Yet this public-spirited student appreciates that he’s developing a skill set in a certain kind of vacuum, and that he’ll ultimately be able to apply this rigorous process in many different ways. His recommendation for change is for instructors to be more explicit about the vacuum. The vacuum of school is a precious opportunity, as long as students don’t confuse it with the real practice of architecture.

And he’s “really thirsty” to get to his upper-level elective courses and options studios, where he will be able to pursue courses in participatory design and work directly with communities.

During my graduate school days of the 1990s, there was a perceived divide that echoed Professor Moussavi’s sentiment: good design vs. design that did good. The Rural Studio at Auburn University in Alabama changed all that. In the now-famous program, launched by the late Samuel Mockbee in 1992, sophomore and thesis students may apply to spend a semester living, designing, and building in Hale County, Alabama, one of the most impoverished in the United States. From its inception, the Rural Studio has insisted that students create designs that are both architecturally innovative and socially conscious.

Over the past 20 years, the Rural Studio has published, exhibited, and promoted its work widely. Legions of design students have noticed and have been inspired; no doubt administrators, too. In his current introduction to the GSD program, Harvard dean Mohsen Mostafavi writes: “Our program has a social dimension. . . .The complexities of contemporary global and environmental issues — the impact of rapid urbanization; the scarcity of resources; the after-effects of disasters, both natural and manmade; and the continuing inequities between the rich and poor nations of the world — require solutions that are both imaginative and emancipatory.” It appears that the good design/design good divide has largely dissolved.

A fundamental shift of thinking has emerged: Design that does good on social grounds needs to be good design on aesthetic and technical grounds as well, and deserves a seat in the spotlight alongside other design specialties. The five-year-old Curry Stone Design Prize, for example, aims “to make the talents of leading designers available to broader segments of society and to inspire the next generation of designers to harness their ingenuity and craft for social good,” as it dispenses $125,000 annually. On the GSD website, one can now search for faculty, courses, and projects under the theme of “activism,” just as one might search for “speculation” or “sustainability.” Of the 72 independent student projects published, two-thirds tackle public-interest or community-based topics, from working with local farmers in rural Damascus, Syria, to constructing a temporary storefront library for Boston’s Chinatown neighborhood. Of those, 21 are officially classified as “activism.” Clearly, there’s robust student interest right now.

In contrast, of the 85 faculty projects published, only two are classified under “activism.” Whether this reflects a true lack of interest or a statement of work deemed worthy of tenure is unclear. Regardless, lingering attitudes such as Professor Moussavi’s couldn’t be more wrong. Working in public interest begs for the best students and is attracting them. It’s the attitudes that need to catch up.