The Annual International Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectural Design Excellence
Berkeley Prize 2024

John Cary: Commencement Address

College of Environmental Design
University of California, Berkeley
May 16, 2011

Thank you, Dean Wolch, faculty, parents, friends, and especially graduates for this extraordinary opportunity to celebrate with you.

In every one of the many commencement addresses that I read or watched as I prepared for this talk, speakers invariably said the same thing: “I don’t remember a single thing my own commencement speaker said.”

I have to admit, I don’t either.

Though I’ve read some of environmentalist Paul Hawken’s speeches since May 19, 2002, I can’t remember a single word he said that fateful day that I crossed this stage. I believe it was something about Earth dying, and I’m just glad it hasn’t yet.

So let’s just get this out of the way right off the bat:

I don’t expect you to remember anything I say today.

But I am going to challenge you to remember two things you already know:

The first is where you came from.

And the second is why you got into design in the first place.

Sounds pretty simple, no? Yet in life, as in design, the simple things are often the hardest to achieve.

Remembering where you came from and why you got into this work will be a struggle, but it’s one worth fighting for. In doing so, simply by keeping in mind these things you already know, I promise you’ll make a life that you can be proud of. Let me practice what I preach here.

At 34, I’m really still just a kid from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I grew up the second oldest of six children—Danny, me (Johnny), Megan, Molly, Andy, and Colleen. Yes, we are Irish. And Catholic. And very hardworking. My dad, John, is a 30-year nonprofit director, my mom, Mary, is a nurse.

When our family outgrew our modest house on the south side of Milwaukee, we traded our tree-lined streets and narrow alleyways, for an acre of land, an attached garage, and virtually everything else a Midwestern family might ever want or need, except, of course, sidewalks; this was suburbia, after all.

Reflecting on where I came from, I realize how much it shaped my understanding of design, and I bet it’s the same for you. In my case, I remember looking around at my hometown and sensing an absence—a lack of good design and sensible planning.

I started asking questions: Why were the private schools so pristine and open, while the public schools across town were falling apart, with barred windows and metal detectors? Why were some of the hospitals my mom worked in comfortable spaces of healing, and others depressingly drab and impersonal institutions? Why were our roads ever-widening, but still without sidewalks? Even though I didn’t meet an actual architect, landscape architect, or city planner until I went to college, I had a hunch that they had the capacity to heal the broken parts of cities.

My years as an undergraduate at the University of Minnesota provided my first memorable exposure to what most of us think of as “architecture” or “design,” that being beautiful buildings and public spaces—nearly a whole campus of them. My freshman dorm was immediately next door to starchitect Frank Gehry’s art museum there.

But I also learned about activism and leadership at Minnesota, launching petitions and running a national campaign to represent architecture student nationally. With an appetite for activism, I decided on Berkeley, and showed up for a visit with a duffle bag of t-shirts and shorts, and a pair of flip-flops, thinking I was heading to this warm, sunny place, called California. That was little more than a decade ago.

Grad school here at Berkeley didn’t exactly get off to a good start. My first semester, I barely passed the introductory structures class that I’m sure many of the graduates on stage here aced. I was very publicly reprimanded, literally shamed, for that low grade when an architecture department staff member inadvertently forwarded an email about my structures plight to the entire department, students and all. It was horribly embarrassing for me, and no doubt for this person and the department. I practically thought it was the end of my life at the time, and now look back and just laugh. It’s amazing how time adds perspective.

Rather than run for the hills, on the brink of graduating with my masters, I enrolled in the PhD program in architecture, with the intention of studying the culture of the design professions. Yet just one year into my PhD coursework and research, at the ripe age of 26, I was recruited away to launch and direct a national nonprofit organization uniquely focused on the culture of the design professions.

It presented an opportunity to learn how to build and run an organization. It was a chance to make a real impact. But, most of all, it was a way to reconnect with why I went to architecture school in the first place.

A year into my tenure as executive director, I re-launched our fledgling pro bono service program, which would come to challenge every member of the design profession to pledge a minimum of 1% of their time to pro bono service. About two-dozen firms had signed up at that point. Six years later, the program now counts nearly 1,000 design firms among its ranks—leveraging an estimated $35 million in donated services, annually. And since my departure, the program has been ably directed by one of Berkeley’s own Master of Landscape Architecture graduates, Amy Ress, who I hired initially as an AmeriCorps*VISTA fellow.

Since leaving that organization in San Francisco, I’ve resided on the East Coast, had a bumpy run trying to save a fledgling urban advocacy organization, and otherwise devoted my time to building the pro bono and public-interest design movement, primarily through speaking and writing. This latter work is what keeps me up at night and gets me out of bed in the morning.

I was speaking at an event recently, and was asked, “How did you ever think to get into this kind of work?” I paused, and not for dramatic effect, but because I was genuinely struck. Sensing something emerging from deep inside my soul, I said: “This is what I thought architecture and design were all about.”

People applauded spontaneously—as if they had never heard such a thing before. Yet I knew they had. They had heard it in themselves. I’m convinced we all have. But in the process of our education, our training to become licensed professionals, or our process of becoming tenured professors, I worry that truth—that first knowing—is lost, at worst, and tempered, at best. We sometimes get so wrapped up in the process or what others expect us to do, that we lose sight of what brought us to this work in the first place. One of the unexpected highlights of my time at Berkeley was serving on the graduate admissions committee. For what was probably only an afternoon, I sat around a small table with Professors Gail Brager, Mary Comerio, and few others. We read personal statement after personal statement about these aspiring architects wanting to make the world a better place. Some went so far as to say they wanted to change the world. A small percentage of those idealists would ultimately be admitted.

Their idealism no doubt diminished when already late nights quickly turned into allnighters in studio, and any lingering idealism was further tempered when their final studio review discussions devolved into posturing between distinguished critics, rather than focus on actual client or community experiences or perceptions of the project at hand. But, graduates, here you are, about to walk across this stage—a perfect moment to reflect back and reconnect with those initial instincts.

There’s a lot of grumbling about how hard it is to find jobs in the design fields and building industry right now. I take a different view. I think this could be one of the best and most important moments for designers to find and carve out roles in other sectors. There are enough designers working in design firms. There are not, however, nearly enough of us working in government, in public health, in schools, in AmeriCorps or the Peace Corps, and or the nonprofit sector more broadly. These are unmatched opportunities to move the needle in organizations or entire sectors where design or design thinking has been overlooked or taken for granted, for too long. If I were you, I’d make this your Plan A, and not Plan C or D. After all, the only thing more important than good designers are good clients.

For those that enter more traditional design or planning practices, I implore you to listen to and honor your future clients in every way that you know how. At least in my day, it’s something that didn’t earn much focus in school. And to this day in practice, at least in architecture, clients are paid little more than lip service in our array of self-congratulatory award programs, design competitions, professional associations, the press, etc.

This was all too apparent when my recent book, The Power of Pro Bono, became the first design book ever published to give clients an equal voice. With an ample supply of gorgeous photographs and even contributions by some renowned architects, it could have ended up looking and reading just like every other design book. What would have been lost were the first-hand accounts of users, the client descriptions of design that were more moving than the words of even the most articulate of architects. And also the chance to get a glimpse inside the social impact of design.

In Pass Christian, Miss., the client for the cover photo of my book, said “I love our new building. SHoP, the architects, designed the most soaring, lyrical, magical roof ever; it looks like whale bones or the ribs of a boat. People see all sorts of things in the roof.”

A local resident involved with a partially-built park master plan adjacent to an iconic, abandoned train station in Detroit, says simply, “We live in a city where everyone talks about things falling down, and now there is this hope of creating something new and beautiful again.”

I believe we all have a responsibility and an opportunity to engage in design for the public good. One of my life’s wishes is that I could point you graduates to a design version of Teach for America or something resembling the well charted public-interest career path awaiting law school graduates.

The fact that we as a profession and a society have not created such a path need not stop you from doing anything you want to do; opportunities abound. It doesn’t require you to give all of your time away, found a nonprofit, or even work for one. It only requires you to remember two things: Where you came from. And why you got into design in the first place. Just those two things.

I’m just a kid from Milwaukee who wondered why some people got cathedrals and others got trailers. I’ve had fancy fellowships and awards—hell, I’m giving the commencement address at Berkeley (something I never imagined I would be asked to do)—but the best affirmation I’ve ever received came from my 85-year old grandmother, back in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. After reading my book, she wrote these words:

I thought the other day, as I sat in my doctor’s office, how depressing it was from the color on the wall to the carpet on the floor.

The 2nd and 3rd paragraphs of the first chapter of your book express exactly what I felt.

Now I will have to call and see who is responsible for the drabness in that place.


I did call and got the man in charge and he said he appreciated someone calling him regarding the space. My doctor’s office is on the list for an upgrade and he is going to look into their other spaces now as well.

It is always good to express one’s opinion if done in the proper manner.

If a few paragraphs in a grandson’s book can produce this, imagine what each of you graduates can do to change hearts and minds about the role of design in our society. Graduates, why did you get into this work in the first place? Really, I want you to think about it.

Remember why, because that’s all.

And that’s enough.

Thank you.

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