The role of the architect—and even architecture itself—in society today is changing. A lack of interest in critical social issues from a profession that holds such high responsibility within a community is a problem that should no longer be avoided.
In an exhibit currently on show at the Center for Architecture and Design in Seattle titled "In the Public Interest," Garrett Nelli Assoc. AIA challenges the profession of architecture to establish a focus on more community-engaged design. With the help of the 2017 AIA Seattle Emerging Professionals Travel Scholarship, Nelli traveled to Los Angeles, rural Alabama, Haiti, Italy and New Orleans, all the while analyzing how the built environment has the ability to influence social change.
Read on for an edited interview with Nelli about his research and how you can begin to implement elements into your design practice to help promote social change in your own communities.
Collin Abdallah: Were there any specific problems in your own community that you recognized and that lead you to this type of research?
Garrett Nelli: Every community has their overarching issues that we can look to specific architectural examples for insight and guidance. Seattle is no different. In the city, there is a growing homeless population and a lack of access to essential social services. The city is growing at such an unprecedented rate that many locals feel their neighborhoods are transforming uncontrollably before their eyes. There is, most of all, a need to arm these neighborhoods, grassroots organizations, and underrepresented individuals with the tools that will allow them to more effectively impact how the city is changing so that it can reflect the whole.
Widespread across the country and the world there is an urgent need for greater dialogue between diverse professions, groups, and ideologies. A community-engaged design process is a small part of how we, as a profession, can do a better job of ensuring that we are working for an open platform of communication that promotes inclusivity of ideas and people.
This research aims to provide the Seattle communities new tools to design for our public, as well as a platform to discuss the role the built environment plays in our lives.
CA: Why do you think architecture and architects specifically are responsible for the shift in focus to more engaged communities?
GN: The architect must be the change that we want to see, just as much as the architecture.
Architects hold a unique position in society due to our licensure, and in the diverse roles we play throughout the built process. We find ourselves acting as moderator, activist, public speaker, and conductor of many parties. Our exposure to the public and diverse skill set prepare us to be best equipped to be the key player in implementing this shift in design thinking.
From a licensure standpoint, architects have a commitment to the health, safety, and welfare of the public. It could be argued that safety has been addressed through building code and ADA guidelines. A recent rise in environmental thinking and wellness standards can be associated with the public's health. There is yet to be a strong movement that addresses the public's welfare in design. Why hasn’t the profession focused on issues of equity, disparity, and dignity? Why has the profession been so quiet on the critical social issues of our time? As those who hold a unique and influential role in society, it is time for the profession to rethink and redefine how we will address the third element of our professional ethos. Too long has the profession been too silent.
CA: What types of issues would you specifically like to see addressed by the implementation of your research?
GN: First and foremost, I would like to see the profession alter how we practice—specifically how we structure our businesses so that our services are more accessible and longer lasting. In order to have a greater civic reach, we cannot solely operate in the traditional realm of pre-design through construction administration. Incorporating grant writing, fundraising, policy writing, advocacy, land development, and building maintenance (to name a few) will drastically alter the longevity of our services. Our current model of practice is too narrow-minded, severely limiting our potential impact and reach.
We must also expand the roles that we encompass to reach a broader clientele. A select percentage of the population has the needed capital to take advantage of the architect in its current role, as the master builder. Our critical thinking and ability to read situations and translate them into solutions is the true intrinsic value we can provide society. If we can make entry to architectural services more approachable, we will fill a critical position in society and make the profession far more resilient.
Last, I hope that more designers work to record the impacts of their interventions. We need to be better bookkeepers of the quantitative and qualitative implications of architectural services. We should let the numbers be our most influential advocates, rather than having to defend ourselves in the face of capitalistic desires.
If we can effectively implement these changes, the architect will gain a more prominent seat at the table making large-scale decisions about our communities and play a more pivotal role in addressing the overarching social, economic and environmental challenges of our time.
CA: How does the view of community-engaged design in the rest of the world differ from the United States? Where are we lacking or doing better than others?
GN: In my conversations, the world outside of the US puts a significant focus on funding public projects through government initiatives, rather than privatized development. There is a much larger sector of works, especially in Europe, that are addressing the public realm through government-sponsored design competitions. This leads to, generally speaking, richer urban environments with thoughtful areas of intervention.
In the States, much of the works that are defining the way the public engages with our cities are led by developers who have not always been so keen to elongate the design process to include a greater pool of stakeholders. This is when it becomes important for designers and the public to fight for their voices. Many of the projects I visited began as grassroots movements with little to no funding, but what started as a small movement eventually turned into an unstoppable force.
CA: Finally, could you give a little insight into some of the specific projects chosen for the exhibition? Can you explain what they are and why you think they are exemplars of community-engaged design?
Michael Maltzan Architecture
Los Angeles, CA
GN: Located on the edge of Skid Row in downtown LA, Inner-City Arts provides arts education for over 5,000 at-risk youth from LA public schools each year. In its 28-year history, ICA has provided exposure to the arts for over 200,000 youth in LA.
The building's clean white walls act as a blank canvas where the students can explore and test ideas. Initially, the clients were hesitant to construct a building so bright in a neighborhood consisting primarily of the homeless and where vandalization is common. Since its inauguration, graffiti has been a non-issue due to the sense of ownership the community feels towards the building and the civic presence Inner-City Arts has brought to Skid Row.
This example highlights the importance of architects having a civic responsibility to work with grassroots organizations for the good of the collective.
GHESKIO Cholera Treatment Center
MASS Design Group
GN: In partnership with leading Haitian health care provider Les Centres GHESKIO, MASS designed and built a state-of-the-art permanent cholera treatment center in the wake of the 2010 catastrophic earthquake. MASS was able to utilize local craft and expertise, enlisting the help of over 360 locals during construction. Also, 97 percent of the construction cost went to Haitian business.
MASS has also developed a team to record the impact of their built interventions. They were able to calculate the construction of the CTC building cost as the equivalent of maintaining and replacing tents over a three year period. Prior to the permanent MASS-designed facility, GHESKIO had been relying on temporary tents and portable toilets. Their findings and research point to new methods that the profession can advocate for the public and the positive impact of these civic project through big data.
St. Joseph Rebuild Center
Homeless Care & Support
Detroit Collaborative Design Center & Wayne Troyer Architects
New Orleans, LA
GN: Built in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, this day center provides the homeless access to free meals, showers, laundry facilities, mental and physical health services and social services. The center is defined by six portables connected by wooden walkways and trellis that transform the parking lot behind the St. Joseph Catholic Church into a lush oasis and area of respite for the homeless population of New Orleans. This center is a fantastic example of temporary disaster relief that offers a new solution for how our cities can better address the needs of the homeless.
20K Homes Product Line
Rural Studio - Auburn University
2005 - Present
GN: The 20K Home product line’s intended goal is to create an alternative to the ubiquitous American trailer home especially prominent across the rural southeastern landscape. This model of housing addresses the systemic issues with the procurement of housing in the states. While in its project-testing phase at Rural Studio, the houses are built pro bono for deserving clients, but in its product form, the exchange of capital for services is essential. Clients will acquire the loan, hire a local contractor who in turn will employ local laborers. Materials, tools, and supplies will be purchased at local hardware stores supporting local businesses. After the house is completed, home values in the area will rise. Through its focus on local material and labor, the project promotes investment in local economies while helping a population in desperate need of an alternative housing option.