In 2002 the San Francisco architect John Peterson founded Public Architecture, an organization dedicated to promoting civic engagement in the profession. Given architecture’s hunger for relevance in the wake of 9/11, the timing was impeccable. The group’s 1% program, which challenges architecture and design firms to pledge at least 1 percent of their time to pro-bono projects, has resulted in more than $25 million in donated services each year since the initiative was launched in 2005.
Although pro-bono work is not new to architecture, there is a recent, fervent interest in it. The Power of Pro Bono: 40 Stories About Design for the Public Good by Architects and Their Clients (Metropolis Books) is in some ways a cultural snapshot. The book—edited by John Cary, the former executive director of Public Architecture—is inspiring not so much for the uplifting stories of social engagement (you expect those) but for the quality of the work. I recently sat down with Peterson and Cary to discuss the glories and pitfalls of pro bono, the need for a constructive critique, and their hopes for the future.
I think the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina had a lot to do with raising the profile of pro-bono and socially responsible work. But both of you have been at this a bit longer. How has the perception of pro bono evolved in the last eight years?
PETERSON: We’ve seen a shift. Certainly, Public Architecture has participated in that shift, but it was happening with or without us. In the ’60s and ’70s we had a larger focus on socially driven design and architecture, and then we saw that fall out in the ’80s and ’90s. We’re seeing that uptick again. This is partly cyclical and partly specific to what’s happening in the economy and culture, with the sense that people are more isolated from one another but have a desire to change that.
CARY: There’s a huge appetite for this work, both within the profession and outside of it. Recently, I served on a design-award jury. They had more than 200 submissions. We whittled it down to twelve that were put out for popular vote, and the people’s choice was a pro-bono project. It didn’t say explicitly “pro bono,” but in the narrative there was this cause, which clearly resonated with people. There’s thirst for this work, but pro bono remains a small part of the practice of architecture, and a very small part of what gets published. Hopefully, that can change.
What effect does the current recession have on pro-bono work? Do architects have a lot of time on their hands to devote to this work, or are they so hard-pressed to find fee-generating work that they’re afraid to take on pro bono?
Peterson: We’re seeing both. It’s interesting to look at what a firm goes through as the economy changes. In the very beginning, they face a slowing market, but they’re reluctant to let staff go, so they have time. Then comes the moment when they have to make hard decisions. They let people go. When the market stabilizes, firms are initially reluctant to hire. They don’t want to be exposed. But now they don’t have time for pro bono, even though there may be an interest in pursuing it. But sometimes, as the economy sours, minds open up because business as usual isn’t working anymore. We’ve seen firms start to explore other ways of engaging practice, thinking about how they can bring more value to their communities. We’ve seen a lot of interest from firms that were once too busy just keeping their clients happy to even think about who they were.
Are larger firms more equipped to handle pro-bono work
in a tough economy?
Cary: There are definitely a number of large firms represented in the book—Gensler, HOK, Perkins + Will—but there’s also a number of projects that were undertaken by small firms. And some of those projects were larger in scale.
Peterson: I’d argue that smaller firms are supremely flexible. That’s been the case throughout the history of practice. The small, boutique firms are accustomed to overinvesting in projects, even paid projects. I’d also argue that an HOK can’t put in 15 percent of its energy to pro-bono work, but a five-person firm probably can because of their light-footedness, low overhead, all the tools and mechanisms that they use to do high-quality work.
In the preface, John [Peterson] wrote, “If we are going to get profit-oriented businesses, like architecture and design firms, to undertake the most pro-bono service that they possibly can, then healthy, self-centered motivations are imperative.” What do you mean by that?
Peterson: It’s pretty simple. If you’re making a decision about the amount of pro-bono work that you’re going to do and it’s driven purely by “generosity of spirit” or even guilt, then you’re going to reach a limit pretty quickly. But if you look at fusing pro bono with larger business objectives—marketing, networking, the chance to work on new types of projects—then these projects begin to do double duty. Jeanne Gang [of Studio Gang] has an interesting attitude about pro-bono work. If they can incorporate no- or low-pay work that still achieves the performance objectives the firm is aiming for, that becomes the metric for success. Other firms look from project to project. Either way is fine, but Jeanne’s approach is a healthy, holistic one.
Does this interest in pro-bono work represent a real culture shift or a trend?
Cary: I think it’s an entrenched part of practice. The difference now is that it’s being celebrated and rewarded in ways that will help ensure that there will be more of it. People often point toward the Rural Studio or Design Corps or Architecture for Humanity, but one of the most powerful aspects about pro-bono design is that it doesn’t require the sacrifice of living in your car or starting a nonprofit or any of that stuff. It enables people to work within the comfort and resources of their own firms. Over the past five years, Public Architecture went a long way toward demonstrating quantity. This book shows that the quality of pro bono being done is on par—and sometimes exceeds—fee-generating work.
Peterson: I don’t believe this is a fad. What’s harder to guess at is whether the tenor of the profession’s interest in socially relevant work will shift. Of course it’s going to in some way. And in the next two to five years, there will probably be a backlash to it. We saw that happen in the 1970s. One of the differences is that during the ’60s and ’70s there was a real split between design and social progressives. You don’t see this as much today. There isn’t a lot of finger wagging at “elitist designers.”
Cary: I do think the public-interest-design movement is pretty ripe for constructive critique. When you look at the actual backlash that occurred when Bruce Nussbaum questioned—in pretty compelling terms—the work of Project H as well as other humanitarian-design organizations, I feel like some of this work has evaded real criticism. Lord knows, the environmental movement has had to answer some tough questions. It’s important to look at what organizations say they’re doing, and then what they’re actually doing.
Peterson: I agree. It’s not only important but necessary. If we don’t ask those hard questions, we’ll never be able to do it well. These are difficult things to accomplish, particularly work outside of your community. People question whether you can even do good work outside of your deeply rooted community intelligence. I think we’ll have to if we’re going to be part of solving the most vexing social issues.
How do designers balance pragmatics with the desire to tackle the world’s most pressing problems?Peterson: It’s all part of the formula for a successful project. Before taking on a project halfway around the world, you have to ask: Do I have the resources or access to the resources, both financial and intellectual, to move the process forward?
Each designer has to ask that challenging question. But if the end point is so distant from where you’re standing, you have to wonder about the value of your investment. That’s one of the things that professionals get sloppy about. We seem happy to invest our time in something that may not ever come to fruition. I think pro-bono work is a great alternative to some big utopian vision for a future that likely will never come to pass.
Is that why the book concentrated on just built work?
Cary: It was to show the breadth and variety of what’s possible. Another driving force was to have the client voice equally represented. That’s one of the primary innovations of the book. Some of the most compelling narratives come from the clients. When the book was first conceived and there were a select few projects, I’d refer to them by the firm name, but as the interviews were conducted and edited, I ultimately began to think of these projects in terms of their clients and organizations.
In the next few years, there will be an opportunity for pro-bono work to prove its relevance. There are going to be these social needs left unmet by the marketplace and government. So the question is: Can architecture and design, in collaboration with nonprofits and corporations, fill these voids?
Cary: I definitely think there’s a big opportunity here. Some of the firms are also starting to hire again. And if you talk to the people at Perkins + Will, they’ll tell you that people are actually seeking them out because of their commitment to social responsibility. They have a new Web site that prominently displays their social purpose, and it’s equal to their commitments to design and sustainability. For a big firm to make a statement like that, that’s real progress.