Public Interest Design Institute training – d.II

I recall the fateful afternoon after my first day interning in San Francisco, when looking for my car, and my heart drops.  It’s been towed.  Forty-five minutes of looking for a spot around Panhandle Park on a Sunday evening and I thought I finally found one – it ends up it was in front of a driveway leading to a home addition, complete with a bay window, blocking any obvious trace of former garage to a desperate spot-seeker.  So according to the group hanging out on the stoop, their landlord had my car towed.

End scene.

Enter, a sunny Cincinnati November morning, east of campus, with a shiny parking spot waiting just for me.  There are reasons to appreciate our smaller, humbler cities in this country.

So here is the second day of the Public Interest Design Institute training, focusing much more on the SEED network and certification.  I first learned of SEED from Professor Zaretsky around the same time as the Living Building/City Design Challenge, so these are all lumped in my design thinking as “good things.”   A sophisticated lump, that is, that is unraveling to become a more prominent design emphasis, spurring enthusiasm for young and experienced designers alike, exhibited in our range of participants at the training.

The day began with Bryan Bell and Maurice Cox presenting an overview of SEED – the rating system, network, and vision.  As a designer, we should see ourselves as….

  • facilitator,
  • problem solver,
  • advocate,
  • activist,
  • instigator,
  • public citizen…

basically, we have developed critical thinking skills allowing us to look outside the box.  Not in the same way a businessperson might, with trending, forecasting, and driving the market, but rather we step outside of the frame society has placed itself within and question what is working, and why?  For whom?  If society is to be all-inclusive in providing basic rights, I think this is an essential place to begin for each individual.  If we don’t consider our stance on the role of government, economic systems, public life, and civil servanthood, it would be difficult to assess what systems are flawed, which are successful, and which need a complete paradigm shift.

For me, I find inspiration from my religious beliefs first of all, with the role the government is to play, as well as my own conviction to personally advocate for the poor, marginalized, and oppressed.  Also, the more I learn of development trends and other cultures, and why certain systems can work in other cultures than our own, I realize the importance of adaptive solutions (as Maurice discussed the previous day, in this post.)  For example, from my novice perspective, large-scale development in the U.S. is over.  We still have plenty of virgin land, but you go to Asia if you’re into large cities springing up in a decade.  We have an intricate fabric here that is without a blanket solution, but it isn’t without solution.  Stepping away from status quo establishes a view for problem-solving.

Back to the agenda, upon an inquiry from an attendee as to what the SEED certification is built upon, as there are other socially-minded agendas from the past, Bell responded the Logic  Model from the Kellogg Foundation is the main inspiration and precedent.  It is encouraging that other models have and indeed still exist, that architects may once again be respected for their positive influence in society.

This brings us to another critical point to understanding the architect’s perception and self-value in our current time.  When you think of ‘successful architect,’ what do you see?  A man?  A white man?  A white man wearing cool glasses and all black?  Does this man primarily strive to please the community and building users, or his fellow architects?  So, I know there are plenty of individuals fitting this description that do indeed care about the greater user population, but an exhibit at the MoMa in the summer of 2011, Foreclosed, exhibited the ego-centric attitude our kind has come to represent (the specific ‘solution’ in New Jersey is what sparked our heated conversation at the training).  As one participant exerted, we should be ashamed.  This is why our profession is not respected nor consulted for reasonable and appropriate solutions in the civil sphere, and students should not be encouraged and praised for solutions such as this.  Bringing academics into the mix will open a new discussion, but it is safe to say we can focus better on the non-sexy solutions that really impact building participants.  And finally, on a positive note, the Venice Biennale U.S. pavilion in 2012 Common Ground was mentioned as a positive example of appropriate American solutions.

The day continues with Ramsey Ford and his organization, Design Impact.

Ramsey Ford.

Besides having a cool name, Ramsey shared with us his organization, Design Impact, and its ambitious work – which produces real design, physical results, and measurable impact.  The case study explained was the Sarai Cooking Stove in India, designed and implemented to improve indoor air quality.

We, the trainees, participated in an exercise to realize our own “SWEL” – Strengths, Weaknesses, Expectations, and Limitations (not to be confused with SWOT).  Through this exercise, we should be more able to identify what we have to contribute to design problems, despite what may be perceived as hardships or roadblocks.

In the afternoon, Dan Pietra from The Detroit Works Project spoke of their intriguing work in the city.  Every city has a broad identity associated to itself by the general population.  What is it for Detroit?  Abandonment, violence, urban blight… Dan is a beacon of hope extended to our training, believing in the work and future development of the city.  This is a case referring back to Heifetz’s Adaptive Challenge – such a specific case in Detroit’s history, culture, and situation, that whatever solution and action is taken to create a thriving, growing, vibrant city once again, it will require Detroit-specific answers.

Dan explained several tools and mindsets needed for change

  • Intensive Community Participation
  • Content for design vs. validating (post-rationalizing) the design – tools of the discipline and community engagement
  • We should be concerned about the built environment and not just about building buildings

Melting Pot vs. Mosaic  This metaphor Dan uses to explain the quality of urban fabric they hope to acheive speaks to our past, present, and ambitions in [hopefully] all cities: remembering the rich and diverse history of the cultures of our heritage, understanding new citizens are still arriving and adjusting to their place in the city, and moving forward in a way that celebrates differences in a cohesive manner.  Yes!

Another critical point Dan made, while discussing the client interactions and expectations, is widening the dialog.  For example, when you need to design stairs, what do you think of?  A 7/11 stair tread rising a story up?  What if, instead, your design problem was ascending/descending?  It opens the vocabulary and understanding from a pre-conceived noun to a dynamic verb set, thus opening the box to outside, creative possibilities and solutions.

Take haste and always do something.

These are the words we were left with upon wrapping up the training session.  Besides the camaraderie of meeting other individuals who are publicly-minded, we learned case studies of work on several scales that engages the public, or solves a problem for the under-privileged.  Also, a successful way to engage the public is through narrative.

As told by Niehoff Studio‘s Professor Frank Russell: Our value, design-thinking, brings the opportunity to re-frame questions and re-frame the design exercise.


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.

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