Host: Princeton University
Theme: “Designing for the 98% Without Architects”
By Bryan Bell
Architecture design is currently an exclusive service. This challenges the future of the profession, because we have failed to provide services that are either considered valuable, affordable, or accessible to the general public.
Where are we to go from here? Do we remain as we are now, serving the same small group of wealth and powerful clients? Do we become even more exclusive as builders and manufacturers successfully compete against us for more and more of the public? Or do we find the means of bringing quality design to a greater number?
The purpose of this conference and publication is to bring together and to share the best ideas and practices that are reaching those currently un-served by architecture. These are diverse and disparate efforts, but there are two common threads which are outlined below.
Communities and individuals should be included in the design decisions that affect them.
What does it mean to serve the un-served in architecture? Serving should mean inclusion in the design decision-making process. If you consider the typical client for a public building or even a home, it is only the wealthy and powerful that have the opportunity to make significant decisions about their environment.
While there are many community-design programs and design/build efforts underway, many fail to meet these criteria and do not include the user in the design decisions. For example, in Yale’s first-year-student building project, the client is selected after design and construction is complete. The students have, understandably, attempted to create unique designs. But this has led to the unfortunate situation of trying to find a suitable family after a specific design has been constructed. The opportunity to be inspired by and communicate with a real client is lost for these students.
One of the great failures of architectural education today is the lack of direct contact with clients. Students work only with hypothetical clients presented in neatly pre-defined programs. Communicating in the program stage is not a part of undergraduate or graduate programs. Designers must learn early in their training to listen and communicate as part of their design process. They could find a great source of inspiration through this collaborative process. This can happen as has been shown in the work of the Pratt Center, the City Design Center, and the Hamer Center.
Sometimes, a group will “represent” the users, such as elected officials, residents’ councils, ministers, and nonprofit staff. But in fact, these representatives have been elevated to the powerful and may unknowingly act as a barrier between the actual designer and the users. Scott Wing’s article describes such an experience with Habitat for Humanity. This divide between designer and user can apply to a family structure as well; a father may speak for all decisions but may know very little about the actual spatial use of his wife and children. Designers must become adept at processes that do include the full group of end users, not just the representatives who may not understand how their design decisions differ from the larger group. A great variety of these have been tried and are being tried. It is critical to define what works best.
The missing value of quality design.
A second shared objective of the participants is the goal of achieving the highest quality design in these projects. Unfortunately, community design projects have a poor record in achieving this. Our most talented graduates are faced with the bad choice of having to pursue either design or community projects, not both.
The possibilities are great as there is currently abundant funding dedicated to community and affordable housing projects. Efforts are being carried out by housing authorities, local nonprofits, and for-profit developers. What is missing from these projects is the value of quality design that architects understand and which can add greater benefits to these local efforts.
The best examples of these community projects are being done by local nonprofits who find local solutions to local problems. But these nonprofits too often fall back on “numbers of units produced” to measure their success, rather than solving the particular design needs of neighborhoods and individuals. The philosophy of “local solutions to local problems” should be extended to the scale of the individual. A great opportunity has been missed when these efforts fail to respect–through considerate design–the clients they intend to serve. Considerate design could add the true element of respectful solutions that are at the heart of non-profit missions.
While such a combination may seem impossible, it is only impossible due to the lack of designers participating in the process. The student efforts at Auburn University’s Rural Studio show how an infusion of design talent and energy can elevate projects to both community benefit and the highest levels of design. These projects and other efforts presented in this conference and publication demonstrate alternative means of providing is missing value of design through a great variety of creative approaches. These examples do not just recreate the AIA models, which have become institutionalized. We have a clear palette, a chance to define new models and ways of collaborating.
The work of Maurice Cox on the Bayview, Va., project illustrates what an architect can do to “represent what is in the hearts of the community” with highly sensitive design. Cox has also accommodated the community through a fee structure that meets their needs by not demanding payments upfront, but when the community receives their funds.
We also have the opportunity to define what constitutes quality design. We do not want to seek a consensus in this. In fact, this definition should be a varied as the diverse values and unique people that create a very heterogeneous nation. It is in the process of defining quality that architects and communities can identify their shared values and goals.
The above summarizes two ideas shared in the ensuing works. What are others? Design/Build programs, community design centers and non-profits have varied approaches to diverse clients, but much is transferable. The identification and sharing of these ideas will move us all forward in this discussion.