Do-good Design

For the past 12 years Bryan Bell has been running Raleigh, North Carolina-based Design Corps, a nonprofit architecture firm that designs housing for migrant farmworkers. Working and consulting closely with both farm owners and workers, Bell; his wife, Victoria Ballard Bell; and their five or six design fellows bring the highest levels of design thinking and practice to the problems faced by their often neglected and underfunded clients. Like the late Samuel Mockbee’s Rural Studio program, Design Corps’s greatest strength is its insistence that there is no contradiction between good design and “good deeds.”

In December Princeton Architectural Press released Good Deeds, Good Design: Community Service through Architecture, a collection of essays Bell edited by Mockbee, Maurice Cox, and others bringing their architectural training to nonprofit work. Metropolis managing editor Julien Devereux spoke with Bell about his book, and the lessons he’s learned from his work.

Why did you decide to do the book, and how did it come about?
I realized there were a lot of other designers around the country trying to achieve a social mission with their work, and I started talking to them: learning from them and telling them what I had done and what I had learned. And this exchange continues; I find these people doing really beautiful design work. So the book was an effort to get these lessons out on the table for other people. It took me five years to have any idea how to bring design to this sector, and a lot of people don’t have five years to drop out and explore. I think almost all architects want to broaden their practice and serve a greater sector of the public. This [book] is a collection of people doing that. I was pretty clear in the editorial emphasis that we not just make it sound easy or sugarcoat anything but tell some of the mistakes we’ve made, what we’ve learned—and also bring in our philosophies. It’s a how-to, but it’s also a manifesto. And hopefully it inspires people but also gives them some real practical lessons.

What do you think it is that holds most architects back from doing this kind of work?
It doesn’t fit into our traditional model. Things are pretty specific about how much you charge as an architect and what service you should do and when you get paid. And if you follow that model you end up with a very finite result. I’m not quite sure why architects have such a limiting model at the moment, but that seems to be the problem.

I’m not doing volunteer work here. This is paying work. It just pays on a little different schedule. You have to understand when the money comes in and where it comes from. It’s just a different approach.

Do you think that’s because of the way architects are educated, or do you think it’s how they’re acculturated into the firms that they take jobs with after school?
Well, I think there’s an issue with both. In the educational process I was always handed a program on an 8-by-11 piece of paper, and I never really thought about going out to discover the need for design somewhere and make a case for that.

I was never really taught to listen. Architects come in late in the project, and they leave early. They sit down and design something that somebody else is going to build; somebody else is going to occupy. You don’t pay that much attention to those aspects—a little bit, but it’s not your focus. You’re also not really involved when the program’s originally written or the site is selected or the budget’s set. In almost all of my projects now I’m there at the very beginning.

What areas do you see as places for architects to look into and expand in?
Well, pick your issue. What’s fascinating to me is that you can pick any issue: health, day care, unemployment. Instead of starting with how many square feet you need, start with the social issues that need help right now. Start with that and then say, ‘How can we play a role there?’ I love it when I see somebody who has a different cause than me. How they’ve brought their architectural problem-solving to that issue is what’s really interesting—and not just problem-solving but the resulting built form.

On the one hand you’re talking about bringing architectural knowledge to bear on a social problem, but how has grappling with those problems made you learn as an architect?
Here’s an educational problem. I can walk into a design studio on the first day and say to them, ‘OK, today we’re going to design migrant housing,’ and every one of the students will go to the desk and start designing migrant housing. Somehow they think they know about migrant housing. My best approach as a designer is to say every time I start a problem, ‘I don’t know anything about this. How can I learn more about what’s involved in this issue?’ I think it makes me more of an engaged citizen. The client doesn’t knock on your door and hand you the information you need. You have to be really proactive about getting out there and finding those design clues. I love light. I love beautiful materials. But when I find those pearls of solution out there, that’s what really inspires me as a designer. And the deeper you dig the more beautiful they are.

As an architect, I need to get out and talk to people. I need to understand them. Architects have this superman complex where we want to say, ‘I can solve all your problems with architecture.’ But clients don’t know they need you. You’re saying you can help them out, but at that moment it’s only fulfilling to you. You have to take the time to explain what’s in it for them. People don’t know they need us, and we like to think that’s their fault and their problem, but we need to be the ones to explain how we can help.

Have you seen a big difference in the way students approach their jobs and the way they think of form after they’ve worked with you?
I read in a survey that 22 percent of architecture students say that they went into architecture to improve the quality of life in their communities. So going into school they have the motivation but not the skills. Coming out of school they have the skills but not the opportunity. So Design Corps is trying to open the door for some who have the same motivation I did, realizing that not everybody can do it immediately.

But my work and the book are also a way of critiquing ourselves, because it’s not helpful to be patted on the back all the time and told you’re such a nice person. I want some good harsh design criticism. Give it to me just the way we critiqued each other in school. So this book has also been a way of discussing each other’s work and trying to push it to a higher level from a design point of view, not just congratulating ourselves for being nice people. There are no excuses for bad design in this work. It’s as important here as anywhere else.

Finally, what are your hopes for the book’s impact?
I hope to find even more people out in the trenches who can become a part of this movement—and when I say movement, I’m not pretending like it’s something starting now. I only call it a movement because there’ve been people exploring this for 30 years, and I’ve certainly learned from some of the earlier innovators in participatory design. I see this as a new generation taking a shot at it. I think the problem has been that graduating students feel they have to make a choice between doing good work and doing good design, and that needs to be resolved. They should have an opportunity to do both, and the more examples and encouragement we can give to those cases, the more we’ll strengthen the future.

Ten years ago when I would tell people I was doing custom-designed affordable housing they just thought I was crazy. But people don’t find that crazy anymore. People thought design was a luxury, and I think they are beginning to realize that it not only can achieve but is also a day-to-day practical approach to solving problems. I think a door is opening for an expansion of design that I’m not sure has ever existed before. It’s very exciting.

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