In the Public Interest

Design is relational. It is not just about objects. It’s also about being a catalyst to change human relationships and activities. Last year, at our annual Structures for Inclusion Conference , Sergio Palleroni said that 90% of the impact of his architecture is not in the construction. The real impact is in the relationships, the empowerment, and the activities created, in addition to the bricks and mortar.

This type of impact continues to be revealed, every year, at our conferences. The presentations at Structures for Inclusion highlight design work that addresses a critical social, economic, and environmental issue. For me, the most successful of these presentations have been when an architect and community partner present together and convey this relationship building as well as the physical building. What begins as a combination of a need and a service becomes a collaboration and greater benefit.

One example was the first rebuilding effort after Hurricane Katrina devastated 9th Ward, by designer Patrick Rhodes and volunteer students. There was no electrical power or water. Nobody knew the fate of the neighborhood. But undaunted, Patrick teamed up with Ronald Lewis, a local leader, to rebuild a small community center that preserved local Mardi Gras crafts called “The House of Dance and Feathers”. I saw them present the project together at Structures for Inclusion 7, and the bond between them showed trust, friendship, and real collaboration. I have to believe that Sergio’s comment is true about the new House of Dance and Feathers as well. As someone who grew up in New Orleans, I remember explicit signs of segregation which may have become less explicit, but still exist. I have to feel that the bond formed through the design process, by Ronald and Patrick as they started to rebuild the 9th Ward, is an example of love and forgiveness that is the real impact of design.

These examples at our conferences have been rare–their visibility has been difficult to achieve, as some community partners seem uncomfortable in public presentations. Next year we will have a new method of showcasing the best projects at Structures for Inclusion 12 in Austin Texas on March 24 and 25. Six exemplary entries will be selected through our annual SEED Competition for Excellence in Public Interest Design. And for the first time, ten-minute documentaries will be made of the projects by the renowned organization The UpTake. The films will premier at the conference and showcased in other venues throughout the year.

The goal of publicizing the best solutions is to emphasize that design is not just a technical service, but has unique ways to serve the needs of the public–the entire public, not just those who can afford expensive fees.

Today the design profession is at a critical point. We are on the verge of becoming a technical service, too easily outsourced to people who know nothing about the special individuals and unique communities who desperately need smart design solutions. It is time to realize that the design community has greater impact, as a catalyst for building human relationships.

For more information on trainings for SEED and Public Interest Design:

Bryan Bell worked with Samuel Mockbee in 1985 on three houses in rural Mississippi; in 1991 he founded Design Corps and subsequently added a fellowship program with the AmeriCorps; in 2010 he was a Harvard Loeb Fellow. His effort to share ideas with the newest generation of architects has led to a series of conferences, like Structures of Inclusion, hosted at various universities. Selected presentations from these events have been presented in two publications: Good Deeds, Good Design (Princeton Architectural Press, 2003) and Expanding Architecture: Design as Activism (Metropolis Books, 2008). His current work includes “Public Interest Design,” funded through the 2011 Latrobe Prize awarded by the American Institute of Architects; the work includes a triple bottom line evaluation using the Social/Economic/Environmental Design (SEED) Scorecard.

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