Nov 1, 201301:00 PMPoint of View

Q & A: Jerilou Hammett

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This is a huge paradigm shift, which most architects and designers never make. It is counter-intuitive to traditional architectural education where the project that gets showcased is far more important than the one that helps an underserved community. The architects and designers who will be inspired by this book are the ones already predisposed to see the use of their training and talents in a new light. They’re the ones who believe that a better world for everyone is possible. They’re the ones who will come to understand the many rewards that await them besides wealth and status. There is much reason for optimism in this.

MCP: The social design movement has exploded in the last five years. But in many ways, the culture is just now catching up with the ethos of DESIGNER/builder, which had been working in that space long before it was fashionable. Talk about what it was like in the 1990s and early 2000s to be on your own (maybe with the exception of Metropolis) covering these stories when the rest of the design press was chasing the latest museum project?

JH: DESIGNER/builder magazine was a fascinating journey. Being small, independent, and bootstrap from beginning to end, we had the freedom to take the magazine in unexplored directions. We wanted to offer an alternative voice in the field by adding social justice (which we had grown up with in the 60s) to the debate over the built and human environments. We knew that architects knew how to design, and builders knew how to build, and planners knew how to plan, but what was missing was a sense of the human context in which they were operating.

As we began to look beyond the obvious, we came across people and stories that were full of unique voices and perspectives. One led to another and before we knew it we found ourselves in the middle of what one might call a social movement. We gathered together readers and contributors who shared a common vision and dream, articulated in ever-expanding, innovative terms and often to heights and scales, which the mainstream media would never have attempted to embrace. It was a very exciting time because the readers fed off the magazine and we fed off the reader and contributors. The eagerness to be a part of DESIGNER/builder’s network was inspiring. We certainly didn’t stand-alone. We had actually developed a sense of family.

MCP: Some of these stories are more than ten years old. Are you still in touch with some of these people? Are they still actively engaged in community building? Is there a new generation?

JH: As we compiled the book we were in close contact with the people in the stories. We’re still in touch with many of them.  All remain committed to the work they were doing. Many interventions have grown in size and mission. Sometimes the leadership moved on, sometimes the structure changed, sometimes external pressures modified the original goals, sometimes as these projects grew the format and the money they had attracted changed basic relationships.

We were intent on capturing these stories at the very moment of inception, when the passion and vision were at their freshest. We were always aware of the overriding importance of whether the goal was a more beautiful city or a more beautiful life. Were they about the intervention itself or the life that the intervention framed?

There are people everywhere continuing this kind of work, on fascinating journeys with unexpected victories. They all offer us lessons, but we hear very little about them. Human decency and common sense, how we raise our children, treat our elders, house our homeless don’t sell media. It’s not what makes news.

Yet these actions speak eloquently and deserve our attention. People who look beyond the obvious and take on those challenges have great power and use it well. If our media were saturated with their stories, we would be aware of the wisdom, inspiration, and creativity of ordinary people. Hearing these unique voices would emphasize a caring society and give us hope that things can change. We’re living in critical times, with seemingly overwhelming problems. It’s vital that we encourage more individuals to become aware of their power and to use their talents to benefit the lives of others and the world around them.

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