Public Interest Design Institute training – d.I – pt.I

Starting out our conference was design activist Bryan Bell, the founder and facilitator of Design Corps, the Public Interest Design Institute, and co-founder of SEED.  Some highlights of his comments are as follows.

  • While most projects within the for-profit design field cater to 10% of the population, we need to seek good design for 100%.
  • “every issue is a design issue” – this relates well to a quote Maurice Cox later brought up by Thomas Jefferson: “Design activity and political thought are indivisible.”
  • As architects, as designers, we need to address a greater range of projects and offer a larger scope of services.
  • Ideally, a design solution will address and solve multiple issues.  For example, the Tsunami-Safe(r) House by a collaboration team from MIT & Harvard addresses cultural needs of staying near the coast, creating durable structures to withstand a tsunami, and being widely replicable.
  • Bringing public value: we need to do much more with much less.

Next was community designer and director of Tulane University’s City Center, Maurice Cox.  He presented a case study of Bayview Rural Village, of which he largely facilitated the design visioning and creation process.

Mr. Cox began with the following quote:

There is this irony that as we have become more famous we are also taken less seriously. _Rem Koolhaas

While this is a societal issue, that we tend to profane most things of value through jest, there are also facets of ridicule that the designer community heaps upon itself.  For example, creating a design from a crumpled piece of paper.  Or, perhaps with more serious implications, creating broad sweeps of social-housing that degrades rather than improves an already sensitive and marginalized community.

Cox also challenged us with the words of Samuel Mockbee, the visionary and founder of Auburn University’s Rural Studio:

Inspire a community to challenge the status quo…

As the whole conference centered around this question, Cox urged us to consider design for all.  That is, “What if broad and popular access to quality design were a… democratic right?”  Also, a mantra for his organization is borrowed from a South African slogan:

Nothing about us, without us, is for us.

A really important point Maurice brought up was “Identifying the Adaptive Challenge.”  He referenced Ronald Heifetz, a leadership expert, in this topic, pointing out that we are dealing with adaptive problems – those without prescriptive, top-down solutions.  Rather, questions dealing with sensitive and unique cultural problems require a strategic approach as well as cooperation and a certain level of visioning from the end-user, creating a climate of urgency, as Cox put it.

Cox then went through the design process for his project in Chesapeake Bay, the Bayview Rural Village.  This was a group of impoverished people living for generations in sub-standard housing conditions.  The really great thread traveling through the whole case study was that there was still a very strong social network and sense of community amongst the people.  This is a really great opportunity I think, yet strange that even though they valued each other, their homes were decaying, with tons (literally tons) of trash strewn about.  Cox went through a series of questions to consider in his design process, including:

  • As a public interest designer, what would you define as “the work”?  Answers included awareness, making people realize their conditions were unacceptable.  Also, what the homeowner wanted primarily was safe running water (in a top-down approach, this real need made not have been established).
  • Faced with these conditions, who would you assemble on your design team?
  • As a public interest designer, how would you begin to engage people in a long-term planning process while addressing present conditions? An agreed upon solution with this was “quick wins” to produce confidence among the clients during the design process.  For this project, this included a day of community trash clean-up and a proposed public bathhouse, community kitchen, and meeting place.  Importantly, these quick win solutions designed with the stories of people, advancing their personal narrative in a vital direction.
  • As a public interest designer, how would you engage people in developng a plan of action to address the long-term?  As Cox pointed out, “If people don’t feel urgency, they don’t feel the need to challenge the status quo.”  The long-term plan here was housing that preserved their heritage, not an indicator of upward mobility.  At first, some community members wanted ranch houses, but were led to understand the value of preserving their heritage through two-story dwellings.
  • The plan of action completed, how would you “move the work forward?”  This is a uniquely answered question.  It was a rather controversial issue that involved a level of political weight, especially once NAACP got involved and publicized the issue, at which point money pretty much came streaming in.

Some highlights of this project:

  • Multi-generational housing.  The older population seems to be richer than many in our culture, as their housing is directly attached to two other family units, in at least one housing model.
  • A woman was quickly discovered as the leader and influencer of the community – Alice Coles.  Coles is quoted as saying “How do we build the infrastructure in the human soul?”
  • Also, an inspiring outflow of the whole process: the same group of people, who months earlier saw no need to take care of the waste surrounding their neighborhood and houses, were those creating a non-profit social justice organization for their community and envisioning future development.

(BTW: An interesting branch of funding for this project came from Dave Matthew’s Band.  Apparently funding can come from the most unique of places)

Next came Emilie Taylor with her riveting tale of a community in New Orleans that gained social capital among its youth as well as fresh, organic produce with Grow Dat Youth Farm.  I’m going to start that on a new blog post though.  To proceed, click here.


Author: Meg C

Meghan is a recent Master of Architecture graduate from the University of Cincinnati. She is interested in all aspects of sustainability, finding the most pertinent ways it relates to the built environment including social justice in terms of material choice, implementation, and life-cycle. While pragmatic concerns are ever-present, she constantly explores the inexplicable beauty to be found in the intersection of order and the poetics of space.

One thought on “Public Interest Design Institute training – d.I – pt.I”

  1. 🙂

    Meghan, I’m thinking of you at my VISTA pso, it is so good!

    Hope you are having just the best of everything, too! Maria

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