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

Tom Fisher: Public-Interest Architecture: A Needed and Inevitable Change

Note: This article was published as the foreword to Expanding Architecture: Design as Activism, (2008) Metropolis Books.

This book provides an exceptional overview of the diverse and growing practice of community design and public-interest architecture. Some architects may consider these activities to be marginal within the field, but this form of practice promises to open up whole new areas of service for design professionals; and, given demographic and environmental trends, it may eventually become a primary career track for many people. That may sound odd to those who currently work in this area, given the occasional sense of embattlement and the number of obstacles that many of the authors in this volume have encountered. But the gap continues to grow between what millions of people need and what the current system of housing and building provides. For that reason, change is inevitable.

Consider the metaphor that Sergio Palleroni uses to describe the situation most North American architects find themselves in: "I often compare the situation of living in the United States to being in the eye of the storm. When you are standing in the eye of the storm, everything seems calm. But as you step realize that this storm you're at the center of is changing the rest of the world dramatically."Millions of American citizens, as well as billions of people around the world, battle the storms of inadequate services, unaffordable housing, and unsafe neighborhoods on a daily basis. It is only a matter of time before the winds of unrest and a rain of violence descend upon everyone, including those who may think their money and power can keep them permanently safe in the storm's eye.

The architectural profession reflects this dichotomy. Most architectural practice is similar to the practices of physicians and lawyers, in that professionals work mainly with clients—wealthy individuals, corporations, institutions, and governments—who can afford to pay professional fees and who receive, in exchange, highly customized responses to their specific needs. In architecture, this form of practice has led to the design and construction of many visually powerful and functionally successful buildings, but it also greatly limits the number and types of people served by the profession. As several writers in this book tell us, architects directly affect only about 2 to 5 percent of all that gets built, which hardly makes a dent in the requirement that we, as licensed professionals, attend to the public's health, safety, and welfare.

As Palleroni observes, things may seem calm now to many American clients and their architects, but the storm clouds are on the horizon—and they are rapidly approaching. If you want proof, look at the housing situation in the United States. One-fourth of all American households—some 30 million families—lack adequate housing or the funds to secure such housing, as Kathleen Dorgan and Deane Evans note in their essay, and subprime mortgage lenders have created a financial tsunami of foreclosures around the country, which have increased 90 percent since mid-2006. Tighter regulation of the mortgage industry may help reduce the size of future foreclosure tidal waves, but the failure of creative financing to get more people into their own homes highlights the growing hopelessness among a substantial number of Americans, whose inflation-adjusted incomes have remained essentially fl at for decades even as the cost of housing has risen faster than inflation in most areas of the country. The United States is becoming divided, like many developing countries, into a small number of the super-rich and the majority, whose relatively stagnant incomes place the American dream permanently beyond their reach.

However socially and politically divisive that gap may be in the United States, it doesn't come close to the extremes of wealth and impoverishment or the depths of desperation experienced by billions of people elsewhere in the world. With the global population anticipated to increase to about 9 billion by 2050, the United Nations expects the number of people living in slums to reach 2 billion by the same date. The conditions in what Mike Davis has called "a planet of slums" may seem far-off and abstract to most Americans, but such concentrations of human misery will eventually affect us all. It is almost certain, for example, that a devastating disease will originate in one of these slums because of terrible sanitation, and that unsuspecting people on airplanes will spread the disease to the entire human population, rich and poor alike. We have already seen how the sense of hopelessness and anger that young people feel in such situations can lead them to embrace various kinds of extremism, providing fuel to terrorist activities that disrupt economies and undermine democracies. Add to this the prediction that as many as 200 million environmental refugees will be on the move over the next several decades because of global climate change, and we have all the makings of a human hurricane from which no one will be entirely safe.

As such calamities come to our shores, there will be urgent calls to correct their causes, which will place community design and public-interest architecture at the very center of public concern. This will, in turn, transform the profession, for we may soon find that we have too many architects skilled at designing museums and mansions and too few able to work with indigent people and communities in need of basic housing, sanitation, and security. Licensure may push this change as well. Right now, we assume that architects' responsibility for public health, safety, and welfare remains largely confined to those who commission and use our buildings. But with the human storm gathering force around the world, architects may well see the definition of "architecture" expand to include the health, safety, and welfare of all people, wherever they live and whatever their ability to pay.

Changes in education and practice will follow these changes in demand and expectations. Currently, architectural education mostly prepares students to meet the building needs of relatively wealthy individuals and organizations, even though most of the growth in population and most of the need for architectural services exists among billions of impoverished people across the planet. In some ways, architectural education occupies a place similar to the one it occupied in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when schools still taught the design of classical monuments even as newly industrialized cities grew up around them. The schools changed their curriculums in response to that transformation, and a similar change will occur again in the coming decades.

The same sense of overdue change exists in the delivery of housing and other essential services. As several of the essays in this book attest, practitioners of public- interest architecture and their nonprofit clients must continually struggle against the resistance of conservative lenders, unwilling to invest in anything different from what they have funded before, and cautious regulators, reluctant to approve anything they have not seen before. This approach may make sense to those who think they can stay in the eye of the storm forever, but once the tempest arrives, we will look back at this resistance in disbelief, as we now do at those who, charged with protecting us, acted as if we were immune to international terrorism.

What might a whole new profession of public-interest architecture look like? Precedents exist in medicine and law. Although the traditional practice of architecture parallels those of medicine and law, architects do not have the benefit of an insurance system that protects patients from paying the high fees of doctors, or the contingency-based fee agreements of lawyers who get paid only if they win the case. Nor do most architects have the ongoing relationships and repeat business that many doctors have with their patients or lawyers with their clients.

In the area of public service, medicine and law have created an infrastructure within the profession that allows its practitioners to provide services to the needy, but architecture has no such infrastructure. Of course, doctors and lawyers (and architects) do pro bono work in legal aid clinics or as part of organizations like Doctors Without Borders. But medicine has spun off the field of public health, and law has created a public-defense system. These are vocations in their own right, focused on serving the needs of large numbers of people who are unable to pay market-rate fees but who are in great need of professional expertise. Architects have an important nonprofit effort, Public Architecture, doing heroic work in getting more architectural firms to donate 1 percent of their billable time to pro bono work.

But we need a career path, and possibly even a profession, of public-interest architecture, parallel to public health and public defense, that has its own educational requirements, practice models, financial support, and client base.

This career path could come into existence in a couple of different ways. A profession of public-interest architecture might emerge in partnership with public health. The latter arose out of medicine in the nineteenth century. Coincidentally, designer Frederick Law Olmsted was a major figure in the public-health movement's early history, through his leadership during the Civil War of the Sanitary Commission, which eventually became the American Red Cross. Today the lifestyle diseases arising from the sedentary habits of people in North America and the epidemic and pandemic diseases stemming from the sanitation problems of global slums have caused the public-health community to become newly interested in working with design professionals. That interest has, in turn, provided an opportunity for designers to connect with the funding sources and governmental and nonprofit organizations that have traditionally supported public health. Because of that connection, the practice of public-interest architecture might end up having a much stronger body of research behind it, as well as a more diverse set of disciplines working with it. While the traditional design and engineering fields will continue to be a part of public-interest practice, professionals who do not normally work with architects—such as public-health physicians, social workers, sociologists, and anthropologists—might begin doing so. Public-interest architects might also have closer ties with the academy—not just with architecture programs but also with scientists and social scientists who can help study the impact of our efforts and bring their knowledge to bear on public-policy decisions that have a design component.

The recent transformation in the governmental perception of homelessness is a case in point. Once research showed that it is far more expensive for people to remain on the streets than to be housed, because of the number of police interventions and emergency room visits that the unhoused generate, local and state governments began providing the supportive housing needed to get people off the streets. A public-health model for design practice would be good not only for the many people served by it but also for the architectural profession itself, which has long suffered from a dearth of data to demonstrate the value of what we do.

Public-interest architecture might also emerge as a distinct field in the way that public defense has within law. While most public defenders have a traditional legal education, their practice differs substantially from that of private or other governmental lawyers. Public defenders are typically paid by the judicial branch of federal and state governments, either as full-time judicial employees or as members of private firms who work as assigned counsel or under contract with the public sector. This system arose from the public commitment to give every person a fair trial regardless of his or her ability to pay. Architects need to make the case—with the research to back it up—for a parallel public commitment to ensure that every person has affordable housing and access to essential services.

Those are the very goals that public housing strives to meet, although as we now know, such housing has served as a blunt instrument for handling a highly diverse set of needs. This is part of the reason that we have so many distressed public housing projects. Community design, like the public-defender system in law, has evolved a much more sophisticated set of methods to identify the needs—or more important, as Amanda Hendler-Voss and Seth Hendler-Voss argue, the assets—of people and communities, and consequently to develop a range of options for people to consider. We need, in other words, a viable public process for securing housing and creating community, rather than a one-size-fits-all product like public housing.

While most law schools do not have a specific public-defender track, they do offer the essential civil and criminal courses needed by people going into this specialty. The same curricular components could easily be developed in architecture programs. In addition to the housing studios and the programming and environment-behavior courses that many schools offer, a track in public-interest architecture might guide students to specific courses elsewhere in the university related to working with diverse communities and dealing with issues of environmental health and safety. As with public defense, internship opportunities for students of public-interest architecture need to be established to facilitate their transition into this line of work.

The first signs of ideas like this already exist. The SEED (Social, Economic, and Environmental Design) Network has brought together individuals and organizations committed to public-interest architecture. I predict that, after a few more global storms come ashore, as they did with 9/11 and Katrina, SEED will become as central to social- justice efforts as the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) program has become for environmental issues.

Meanwhile, we have much to learn to get ready for the winds heading our way, and this volume is full of examples of what many in the profession will someday be doing as the public looks to us, along with other professional fields, to help handle the flood of misery welling up from within our own borders and converging upon us from other parts of the world. No one looks forward to such a time, but the longer we fool ourselves into thinking we will always be in the eye of the storm, the more unprepared we will be when the typhoon hits land. See this book, then, both as a storm warning and as a guide for our future preparedness.

Copyright © 1998-2024 Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectural Design Excellence
Privacy Policy Cookie Policy
For permission for any form of re-use of any of the contents, please contact
The BERKELEY PRIZE is endorsed by the Department of Architecture, University of California, Berkeley.