Can storytelling bring Public Interest Design the recognition it deserves, or is something else missing?
In Portland, Oregon, that April weekend everything was in bloom – trees, tulips, and those ubiquitous bushes upon which the city had built an early reputation. Transformation was in the air, and rattled by it. The 17th Structures for Inclusion conference opened to a spate of wind and rain. Petals accumulated on sidewalks and streets in pools of color. Damaged bushes were coned off and trimmed, flowering branches left on the wet concrete.
Perhaps as rich and varied as Portland’s spring colors are the many approaches to Public Interest Design. Deemed a profession by longtime advocate and SFI conference founder Bryan Bell, the phenomenon still struggles to develop a consistency and legitimacy enabled by a common identity.
- Live Projects or Learn Projects
- Single Funder Syndrome
- Structured for Exclusivity
Bell, who also co-founded Design Corps and its SEED rating system, has defended PID’s professionhood as being guided by a set of ethics. He notes that these ethics need not contradict those of conventional architectural practice, and can be woven in, much as LEED values have been able to do. Yet, this year’s conference would seem to challenge this interpretation.
Each year SFI curates and celebrates projects that meet criteria for Social Environmental and Ecological Design. A panel of judges ranks applicants for the SEED Award, and winners and honorable mentions are invited to share their work, insights, and struggles at SFI. This year the scope expanded as host organization Design Corps shared the awards with two partnering organizations. The designbuild x change and the Live Projects Network are both platforms for student-focused design/build projects (“design/build” here being “means to extend the institutional confines of the design studio”), causing the conference to elevate pedagogy at the expense of professionally executed work and strategies.
“Live” Projects or “Learn” Projects?
Day 1, Friday, April 6, at the Native American Student and Community Center, had three tracks – two very popular, classroom sized paper sessions, and a forum for presentation of awards Honorable Mentions in the main hall. I stuck with the HMs: an Iowa student team collaborated with a penitentiary to transform the grounds into healing and production gardens; a team in rural Manitoba thoughtfully dismantled abandoned schoolhouses and other buildings and reused the quality timber for contemporary community needs (creating work so gorgeous I’d buy monographs again); a shipping container kitchen traveled Europe to host family-style dinners between residents and refugees.
Day 2 at OHSU’s new Collaborative Life Sciences Building presented the Award winners from the three organizations – including a makerspace platform for infamous waste materials recovery community of Agbogbloshie, in Ghana (lauded for being both community response and a globally replicable); a multiple shipping container performance space in Cape Town (which included an outward-facing stage that was in use while the rest of the project was built); a Vertical University nature preserve through Nepal’s various altitude-based ecologies.
(And an electric keynote by UC San Diego professors/design partners Teddy Cruz and Fonna Forman that deserves its own discussion…or simply read about their border-spanning work and unapologetic opposition to wall-designing on CityLab.)
The projects were predominately academic in nature, and executed by discrete groups of students. Not in itself a bad thing! but this meaning of design/build may seem simplified to many of us in the design profession, and quickly reaches limits to the scale of project that can be accomplished. And the subtext was unsettling: was Design Corps backing away from their celebration of successful PID in the professional sphere?
At the Day 1 roundup, comments included urging a broadening of the conversation – inviting “bankers” or the “CEO of SOM” to the table. Tiffany Yvonne, a small but vocal strategist from Tacoma, offered looking towards social enterprise business models; across the room a couple of MBA’ed architects emphatically agreed.
Bell got defensive. “We already have models – we have plenty of models.” (The best models, Bryan?) Public Interest Design is now a mature as a profession, he reminds us. “If we simply demonstrate its value, society will reward it.”
Saturday waned. The rare Portland sun ducked into the series of windows on OHSU Collaborative Sciences lecture hall’s west side, alighting on the wrap-up panel. Heads of the partnering organizations and prize jury entertained final comments leading up to a big reveal. The coalition announced their intention to launch an online projects platform for sharing work, wisdom, drawing details, and process notes on Design/Build(/Live)/SEED projects.
Comment from the audience: “You mean like the Open Architecture Network?”
Me to myself: “Yeah!”
Sergio Palleroni: “No – ours will have standards.”
Fair enough. As powerful as it was for hosting, promoting, and connecting community-focused projects – and to this day missed by many for having done that ever so effectively – the OAN was also a breeding ground for half-baked sketchup shelters not benefiting from the rigor of peer evaluation. However, at this announcement, information was neglected regarding what membership the envisioned platform would entail, or the shareability of its materials beyond itself. The touchstone of the OAN was its all-access open source philosophy; members committed their uploads to Creative Commons licensing, and it cost nothing to join the community.
Single Funder Syndrome
It came as a surprise to me, and perhaps as well to the closing dias of leaders and jury, how many attendees did not know Cliff Curry. An unassuming man retired from a development career, Cliff at one point in the final discussion issued a remark to some confusion. Sergio provided a quick introduction, adding, “Cliff also sponsored much of this conference.”
You can see the charitable fingerprints of the Curry Stone Foundation all across the Public Interest Design realm – and only their fingerprints, with seemingly few exceptions. They sponsored the Open Architecture Collaborative’s 2015 launch, their first hire of a Transition Coordinator, and a healthy portion of ongoing operations. The foundation had been close to Architecture for Humanity and Public Architecture…two organizations that are now essentially defunct today. Who knows how may other PID organizations asphyxiate in the small pool of resources dedicated to their cause?
Funding architecture is hard – orders of magnitude more demanding of resources than digging wells or even disaster relief. And then there’s funding design itself – a mysterious process (not, today, because the community is not involved, but because stories of the process are not recorded; here architects find themselves in another ivory tower). Going back, then, to Bell’s comment about PID demonstrating value to get society’s recognition, we see the chicken/egg conundrum: resource-starved PID groups are on a low rung of an organizational hierarchy of needs – lacking foresight to hire beyond their profession those capable of reporting on a design project, or building an accessible web platform, or orchestrating a conference.
Structured For Exclusivity
Which brings us to the specter of Structures For Inclusion: a pervading sense of exclusivity. For instance, over the years, the conference stubbornly remains small. Promotion is left wanting – no messaging calendar, no media outreach, not even a hashtag. (Is this the only blog post, let alone article, you’ve found about it?) Only three other Open Architecture Collaborative members attended – two of whom I’d spoken with about it earlier this year. (Mind you, the OAC, an international network of young, passionate professionals, should be the conference’s target audience. As it was, one absent Portland member told me later they assumed it was an engineering convention.)
At the conference and in the weeks that followed, as I spoke with friends about all this, I got a sense that SFI wants their online platform of project-stories to be the vehicle that “jumps the rails” of the architectural soliloquy. But wouldn’t it be nice to have a robust forum for speaking directly to large, professionally diverse audiences?
Would’t it be nice to have a well-designed platform for that?