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A SEED for change

Bryan Bell, Design Corps founder and a 2011 AIA Latrobe Prize winner, is banking on the fact that many of us are hungry for opportunities these days. When I sat down with him recently to talk about public-interest architecture, he drew a pie chart to explain why he doesn’t believe pro bono work offers a legitimate opportunity to either the public or architects. A tiny sliver—2% of the pie that is the built environment, he said—is where most architects find their work. Within this 2%, if you allocate a small percentage of each firm’s output for non-fee-based projects, the resulting portion is infinitesimal. To make matters worse, pressure from developers, contractors and others threatens to make our 2% piece of the pie that much slimmer.

Bell has made it his mission to bring the rest of the pie—the 98%—into the scope of architects and designers, to increase our opportunities to work and to make a difference. To do this, he says, we need to work more directly and transparently in the public interest so that we can communicate the value of our work to that majority of the public that falls outside the self-consciously design-consuming elite. Bell’s wager is that this message will fall on willing ears in the profession, as it has among students, in a time when the recession has left many looking both for a bigger piece of the pie and for ways to make a difference.

In a way, returning to engage the profession’s mainstream is an attempt to bring his own circle to a close. Twenty years ago, Bell left a position at Steven Holl Architects to live among migrant farm workers in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, to see if he could use his design skills to improve their living conditions. He could. He found, as he had a few summers earlier working with Samuel Mockbee, that he had a deep respect, and even reverence, for his working poor clients: “They were as worthy of design as anybody I would ever meet.…When people have everything you can’t tell what their values are; they don’t have to defend their values. But for this family, it was a struggle to exist; they had to be so clear about their values to put them at the top.”

Above: a bus shelter for a New Orleans community recovering from Hurricane Katrina.

Bell found that the best values of these clients were worth exemplifying and nurturing in the buildings he made for them, so he didn’t have to look further afield to find meaning to drive his designs. Bell described for me the Luckett house, with its gable-roof and a space carved out for the father’s trucks. The father had two old vehicles, using one for parts to fix the other, which he needed for his work; neither had a hood, so keeping them sheltered was practical. But housing the vehicle within the volume of the house, visible to its interior, also allowed the father to share his work with his family. And it meant that the composition of the house was completed when he was at home. All this exemplifies the kind of pragmatic, poetic response to the client’s life and values that Bell is most proud of in his work.

In doing these projects, Bell also found that he had expanded on the designer’s typical areas of responsibility. He actively solicited clients, helped secure necessary grants, worked closely with stakeholders to establish the program and other parameters, and handled the construction. He was making use of his creative abilities in a wider sense to serve a community. With an enthusiasm that belied his more than 20 years in the profession, Bell talked about how this approach jibes with the reasons why most of us came into the field in the first place. He told me that when the Boyer Report, a 1998 commission on “Reinventing Undergraduate Education,” asked students to name the top reason why they studied architecture, 44% responded that they wanted to make a practical application of their creative abilities, while 22% wanted to serve communities. (The third most popular response was the generically stated “to improve the built environment.”) These values, Bell pointed out, are hardly mutually exclusive. In his own updated version of this survey, students and professionals can choose up to three key motivating values, which Bell believes will provide a fuller picture of why we do what we do.

Bell expects that the results of this survey will support an initiative that he cofounded in 2005 called SEED, or Social, Economic, Environmental Design, and its aim is to strengthen the ability of design to act in the public interest throughout the built environment, and not only for the top 2% of clients and projects that conventionally occupy most of the profession’s attention. The SEED metric and process also underpin a Public Interest Design Training Program that Bell is leading in Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design’s Executive Education Program from July 20 through 22, 2011, together with several other leaders in this field.

The way I see it, one of Bell’s biggest challenges lies in translating his skills and philosophies in ways that will allow him to engage the clients, designers and other stakeholders of the majority. Much of his Design Corps practice, working with migrant workers and the rural poor, has been developed in service neither of the elite nor of the middle majority, but of some of the most underserved segments of our population. The ways in which one generates and communicates value for the middle 96% is likely, after all, to be as different from that of the bottom 2% as it is from that of the top 2%. Bringing the wealth of expertise and interest that he and other SEED Network partners have generated into the mainstream of the profession is, Bell admits, a challenge. But in this challenge, Bell says, lies opportunities for us all.

Bell’s Public Interest Design Training Program, an Executive Education Program at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design is held from July 20 through 22, 2011.

Lian Chikako Chang has a PhD in history and theory of architecture from McGill University and is currently a MArch I student at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design. She loves tennis, gardening and food.


Urban Fabric: What happens when you let innovation lead

For many of us, graduating can often appear to be the end of romanticism and the beginning of practicality. After experiencing a period of enlightenment and conceptual thinking in school, we hang up our proverbial thinking caps and enter the working world, which seems, for the most part, cloaked in banal monotony. As we take our first steps toward professional practice, we sometimes leave our intellectual half unfulfilled and neglected, and often yearn for richer, more provocative experiences. Upon graduating from Harvard’s GSD and beginning work at Sasaki Associates in the summer of 2010, Alexis Canter and Eamonn Hutton took a conscious step to integrate these two seemingly distant worlds.

In October, after working full time for a few months, Canter and Hutton approached Gina Ford, a landscape principal at Sasaki, with the idea to conduct a research project that would investigate the declining quality of life in the American industrial city. Ford was highly receptive to their exploration and proposed that the firm play a strong supportive role in their research development and execution. In addition to their regularly scheduled workweek, Canter and Hutton spent countless hours conducting research, collecting data, meeting city officials and rigorously compiling information. They met monthly with principals and associates, all of whom contributed to the project’s ideas and research methods. Sasaki’s encouragement was not only crucial in the development of Canter and Hutton’s research but also critical in funding site visits, providing office resources and marketing the project. This collaborative effort and supportive environment created the opportunity for their research to evolve into what it has become to date—an exhibition and lecture series titled Urban Fabric: Strategies for American Cities.

Urban Fabric culminated into an investigative-research effort that closely examines three carefully chosen American industrial cities: Fall River, Massachusetts; Mobile, Alabama; and Newark, New Jersey. Each largely relied on one industry, textiles, to function. The initial investigation began as a means to discover the reason these once-thriving cities have become degraded and neglected. The exhibition profiles in great detail the political, social, cultural and economic characteristics of each city, presented in beautiful graphics and eloquent text.

During their travels, Canter and Hutton collected street interviews from the locals, providing emotional viewpoints to supplement the quantitative research. Listening to the personal accounts of life in American industrial “middle-cities” created a true understanding of the suppression the citizens living there felt.

After one of the Urban Fabric presentations, Ford explained the misconception that many people share, which is that the city is a self-healing entity and that, over time, things will recover. This simply is not true and has been proven through Canter and Hutton’s findings. They examined a large number of urban precedents, including the Five Borough Farm in Brooklyn, New York, by the Design Trust for Public Space, which begins to inform the elements of successful urbanism through inclusion and activation in once-stressed environments. Projects such as these offer insight into the possible design strategies that can be explored in the future. In their study of Fall River, for example, Canter and Hutton examined the effects on the city after local production had left and many of the residents and workers remained, regardless of the lack of work and uncertain economic growth. They began to question how the absence of industry continued to shape the city and contribute to its economics, politics and culture, and then how intervention could revitalize the afflicted area. They found that as a result of a rise in overseas production, many of Fall River’s mills became abandoned, leaving more than 10 million gross square feet of residual mill space within the city. They composed studies of realized mill renovation strategies that have contributed to the revitalization of inactivated sites around the country to begin discussion of how to move forward in these conflicted areas. Over the next several months, Canter, Hutton and the rest of Sasaki will continue to study and explore possibilities within these middle cities, most of which have lost their identities.

In addition to the exhibit, Sasaki has invited several landscape architects, research professionals and urbanists to give lectures and lead discussions every Wednesday and Friday, now until the beginning of May 2011. These lectures, coupled with Canter and Hunter’s research, have created a massive think-tank environment at Sasaki that has opened up discussion of how to cure these midtier cities from their economic demise.

With Canter and Hunter’s efforts and Sasaki’s support, provocative thought and practicality are harmonious, and academia has been successfully stitched with professionalism to create a brilliant thought-stimulating environment that nurtures progression.

Read more on “gateway cities” in ArchitectureBoston magazine.

Michael Paganetti received his MArch from Wentworth Institute of Technology in May 2010. He is currently working at DiMella Shaffer as an architectural intern and is aspiring to become licensed through the firm’s Intern Development Program. In addition to working, Paganetti enjoys traveling and visiting historic urban spaces and structures around the world.

Photo credit for exhibition triptych: Mary Lewey, Sasaki Associates.

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