Contract: In My Backyard
Friday, April 4, 2008
There are lots of ways the A&D community can make a difference through design, ranging from pro bono work for organizations in need of new space to a fully mobilized design response to humanitarian crisis—these days all too common occurrences in the headlines. Last October, the Contract: Design Forum included guest speakers from two San Francisco organizations that, despite their geographic proximity, take a very different approach to socially responsible design. One, Public Architecture, founded by John Peterson in 2002, focuses its efforts on encouraging designers to identify social problems and provide design solutions within their own communities, reinforcing the notion that we each have an obligation to care for our own. The other was the high-profile Architecture for Humanity, founded by Cameron Sinclair in 1999 to focus on applying practical design solutions to large-scale man-made or natural disasters anywhere in the world.
John Cary, executive director of Public Architecture (now on leave until August to attend the American Academy in Rome, as a recipient of the Rome Prize) talked about John Peterson's motivation for founding the organization: "Peterson Architects, like many boutique design firms, does a great deal of high-end residential and a fair amount of commercial work. And when you're doing $5.5-million homes along with $200,000 bathrooms, there's a lot of work that you're not doing. There are a lot of people that you're not serving. And that, actually, is not intended to shame anyone. It's just intended to recognize that there's a real disparity between the people who can afford our services and the people who can't. So how do we remedy that? Peterson Architects went through this process of looking at how they could do something more. They went out into their own backyard, in their own neighborhood in South of Market, and began to look for an opportunity. This is not something new, but it was enough of a different take on that type of architectural activism—as we like to call it—that it sparked Public Architecture."
That first socially responsible project Peterson Architects undertook recently secured a grant from the City of San Francisco, and involved the design of sidewalk plazas that would help create outdoor urban amenities to improve the sense of community in the troubled South of Market neighborhood. A second project followed involving accessory dwelling units for single-family homes that would help create multi-generational, affordable housing. A third project, which has since become the subject of the National Geographic documentary film "Scraphouse," featured a house made of 100 percent scrap and salvage materials. And a fourth project, a proposed day-laborer station, was highlighted in last year's Cooper Hewitt exhibit, "Design for the Other 90%."
From these promising beginnings, Peterson also developed the desire to spread the message of what good can be accomplished when design solutions are focused on social challenges. "We really believe that architecture and design firms of all kinds, of all sizes, have the opportunity to make a significant contribution, and in fact, far more significant than small nonprofits like ours are able to do," said Cary. Thus the second but equal mission of Public Architecture was conceived in 2005: The 1% Solution seeks to put the resources of the entire design field to work in the public interest.
Under the program, which extracts a commitment from architecture and interior design firms to contribute one percent of their billable hours annually to socially responsible initiatives, a growing network of design firms are mobilizing their professional staffs to undertake this kind of service. Currently, 290 firms in 35 states have pledged to take part. "There's a great desire among architects to do work that's socially relevant," said Peterson in a recent edition of the San Francisco Chronicle. "We're talking about improving public life for everybody." To facilitate the process and connect need to services, Public Architecture also maintains a database of nonprofit organizations with specific design needs, from architecture to interior design.
The AIA recently awarded Public Architecture a $115,000 grant to expand its 1% Solution program, but the real growth and impact will come from within the A&D community itself, and its willingness to tackle one local need or challenge at a time. If you're interested in learning more about giving back under the model of Public Architecture and the 1% Solution, visit www.publicarchitecture.org or www.theonepercent.org.
Jennifer Thiele Busch for Contract
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