Thursday, October 27, 2005

Public Architecture and the One Percent

Activist Architects was recently made aware of the work of John Cary (no, not John Kerry!), based out of San Francisco, who has started a number of initatives aimed at increasing the activist role of architects. His "firm," Public Architecture, allows architects to truly engage the public realm. According to their website, "Public Architecture is a new model for architectural practice. Supported by the generosity of foundation, corporate, and individuals grants and donations, Public Architecture works outside the economic constraints of conventional architectural practice, providing a stable, ongoing venue where architects can work for the public good."

In addition, Cary has formed "The One Percent" Solution as a means to encourage other architectural firms around the states to donate one percent of their time to pro bono work in the public realm. At this time, there is only one Minnesota firm (Paulsen Architects in Mankato) that has signed on, but we can hope that the idea may catch on, especially given the fact that Cary is a University of Minnesota alum!

FYI - You may recognize Cary's name from ArchVoices, the electronic newsletter for architectural interns that he co-published with one of his colleagues.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Architects Against War

I recently came across the Architects Against War petition that was released in January of 2003. What a bold statement by many prestigious architects whose future commissions could have been in jeopardy. A very powerful and relevant statement almost 3 years later! I wonder why more architects have not come forward?

Architects for Peace Down Under

Architects for Peace network of design professionals, started in Australia during the build up to the war in Iraq by the United States. They proceed as a nonprofit to create dialogue and awareness within the design professions of the connections between building and war.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Architect-politician serves as mayor of Mankato, MN

Bridger's comments to focus on architects who serve as mayors here in Minnesota (see "Architect as Mayor in Curitiba, Brazil" below) urged us at Activist Architects to investigate some of our local "archipoliticians." Jeff Kagermeier, an architect with KOH Architects, has served as mayor of Mankato, MN since 2000. Jeff is involved with a variety of community organizations, many of which are listed on the city of Mankato's website. Jeff was awarded the National AIA Young Architects Award in 2001 partly because of his committment to the community and political involvement. Jeff truly serves as a role model for those of us wishing to combine professional lives as architects with community activism and participation.

We at Activist Architects were going to contact Jeff for an interview, but then we found an Architecture Minnesota article from the July-August 2001 issue that asked Jeff many of the questions we had in mind. We've reprinted some of the conversation here (emphasis added by Activist Architects).

Architecture MN: What unique skills can architects contribute to the political arena?

Kagermeier: Three skills, in particular, are common to both architecture and politics. The first is assimiliation. Architects can absorb a great deal of information and make sense out of it. The second is sythesis. We can relate pieces of information to each other and then use them to develop an action plan. Our minds are geared toward finding solutions. Finally, there's facilitation. Architects are used to building consensus. We lead and facilitate group discussions as a regular part of the design process.

These skills complement the abilities of others involved in the political process. For example, I've found that most planners have backgrounds in finance, so they tend to focus on how many tax dollars will be generated by specific districts. As an architect and a contextualist, I'm interested in how buildings can bind a community together. Architects can balance the perspectives of planners by addressing how to weave buildings into neighborhoods and neighborhoods into districts to create an interesting urban fabric.

Architecture MN: How do you balance your public, professional and personal roles?

Kagermeier: I prioritize. I'm a husband and parent first; an architect, second; a teacher, third; and a facilitator of the public interest, next. I don't have any political aspirations. The Republicans and the Democrats both asked me to run for mayor, but I ran as an independent candidate. Being busy forces me to make decisions efficiently. There's no "back burner" anymore. I've reached a point where a sort of basal instinct guides me. And I'm banking on a great nap after I die.

Architecture MN: How has Mankato's built environment changed since an architect's been in charge?

Kagermeier: We've established urban-design standards that strive to achieve a positive image for the city through improvement of the public realm and streetscape. These standards address signage, landscaping and building designs while providing flexibility for creativity. It took a while to write and refine them, but I endorse them. They are listed on the city's website for anyone who's interested in learning more.

Architecture MN: How has being a mayor changed your architectural practice?

Kagermeier: It's broadened my knowledge about the public factors that shape a city and it's expanded my definition of creativity. I understand more about the political process and how various groups - developers, community organizations, business owners and others - have an impact on the built environment. I also fully appreciate the creativity it takes to make such a range of stakeholders work together in the same direction.

Architecture MN: How would you describe the legacy that you would like to create as mayor of Mankato?

Kagermeier: The most important thing you can do is leave a place better than you found it. My goal for Mankato is to create a welcoming city that still feels like home while providing those who grow up, live and work here with the same opportunities they would have anywhere else in the world. While many students move away to other places shortly after they've graduated, we've found that they return because of the great quality of life we have here.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Interview with John Dwyer from Shelter Architecture

We at Activist Architects have recently completed an interview with John Dwyer of Shelter Architects. His work with the Minneapolis Chapter of Architecture for Humanity and his firms focus in sustainable design are what brought him to our attention. Interview follows:

Activist Architect: Please describe the type of activism you participate in.

John Dwyer: I am a member of Architecture for Humanity – Minnesota and have worked on the Clean Hub which is a prefabricated solution to areas needing clean water and electricity, innovative design for Habitat for Humanity, and am currently teaching a studio on the urban slum. In practice, Shelter is a sustainable residential firm. We are currently developing two of the first LEED certified homes.

AA: When did you get involved with this activity? What inspired you to participate?

JD: I started my interest shortly before beginning my own practice about two years ago. I had two books that inspired me to go down the road of ethical vs. aesthetic design. The first was Tom Fisher's "In the Scheme of Things" and the second was "The Ethical Function of Architecture" by Karsten Harries. What evolved from that was an interest in the urban slum, a perpetuating issue effecting about 1/3 of the world's population and often forgotten.

AA: Is this something that you do as part of you professional practice, or something that you do 'on the side'? If it is something on the side, does it influence your professional practice?

JD: It's hard for me to draw the line. I can tell you that my work in humanitarian design is not what generates my income, but I don't think I could ever say that it is on the side or in any way separable from my practice as an architect.

AA: We are interested in those times that an architect steps of the 'normal' role of architectural practice. Do you feel that it is important for architects to do this? Is it important for architects to be community activists?

JD: I feel it is extremely important for architects to evolve the profession by better articulating our value to our culture. The sustainability movement has been a great beginning at this. And in that vein, I believe it is important for architects to reach beyond the normal role. The whole question, in my mind, is how do we define better? Is it just aesthetics that defines our understanding of better architecture, of a better world? So I don't really look at this as activism, but as leadership. I look at it as an improved definition of what "better" is.

AA: How do you financially support your community activism? (e.g. grants, sponsorship, personal financing, etc.)

JD: I don't, yet. We have a beat on a couple grants, but they're hard to come by for architects. This is a big career goal for me, to shape a practice for humanitarian design. Cameron and Architecture for Humanity have done this to a great degree and my hope is that I can find a way of practice that is equally strong.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Architect leads community coalition

University UNITED is a coalition of community organizations and businesses are working to revitalize the University Avenue Corridor through community based advocacy. The University Avenue Corridor is a five mile stretch that runs from the Minneapolis border east to the State Capitol that is commonly known as the Midway. The Midway employs more than 50,000 workers and is home to more than 75,000 residents. University UNITED is a 28 year old organization involved in everything from major redevelopment initiatives to crime prevention work. The 18 member board of businesses and neighborhood groups has been headed by Brian McMahon since 2001. McMahon is a trained architect with degrees from Notre dame and Pratt Institute. He has been working in the urban planning and redevelopment field for over 20 years. Check out there homepage and witness community involvement.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

The Rural Studio

A film by Charles Schutlz called “The Rural Studio” which celebrated the work of MacAuthur Fellow Sam Mockbee was recently shown in the Department of Architecture at the University of Minnesota. It is a film about a philosophy of design and service that should be integrated into more architecture programs.

Architect and professor Sam Mockbee from Auburn University started the Rural Studio in the early 1990’s. Students in the studio are immersed in the rural communities of Alabama working with community members providing architectural services for people who would not normally have access to architects. The importance of architects participating in these communities is that they provide well-built buildings with personality, spirit, and “create something that the owners can take pride in,” according to Sam Mockbee. As for the students, they learn from first hand experience with a client, from design to construction. The students are then able to turn design concept into reality, and learn how to knit the people and the process together. The house is given as a gift; all the client provides is the land. “It is fine that we are being charitable. It’s ok to give and not to take,” Sam commented in the film.

The infusion of community service and architecture is a program that more schools should develop. The skills that are gained from hands on experience such as this one are invaluable to a budding architect. The gain for the community is simply a product of the studio. In the movie, Sam commented that the purpose of the studio was for students to learn design first, and then to serve the community. He seems to have developed a program that works well doing both. I think that this is a brilliant format for design studio, something that gives back to the community while gaining experience, which you will not likely get in practice. This marriage of humanity and ambition is one way in which we can change the practice of architecture in the US to expand the impact of architecture beyond those that have capital.

Check out these links on Sam Mockbee and this project:

Sambo Memorial
Rural Studio
Auburn University Architecture Program

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Architects Boycott Prison Design

Architects / Designers / Planners for Social Responsibility (ADPSR) are helping to build a movement of designers who say no to prison design. The growing prison population not only exacerbates the racial and economic inequalities in our society, but is also bankrupting many of the public institutions that form the best alternatives. See if you know someone who has already signed the pledge, and consider adding your name.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Architect as Mayor in Curitiba, Brazil

Jaime Lerner, an architect in Curitiba, Brazil, knew that in order to change the way a city is designed, he must become active in the political system. Now the mayor of Curitiba, Lerner has instigated a variety of initiatives that have helped the city gain international attention for its humanitarian and ecological systems. Many of the sites about Curitiba are in Portugese, but sites like this one explain some of the initiatives in English.

Some examples of the systems Lerner has established in Curitiba include an excellent bus system that is used by the majority of residents in the city and is both efficient and economical. The city also has initiatives to "pay" the homeless for gathering and recycling waste in the city by offering them food and bus vouchers. All organic waste in the city is put aside and saved as manure.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Design Activism at the University of Washington

A new seminar in design activism was offered in the spring of 2005 at the University of Washington (see the course website here.) The course was offered in the landscape department by assistant professior Jeff Hou, who specializes in community participation and environmental planning. The website for the course includes links to the course's syllabus, which offers good ideas for readings about community activism and participatory planning.

As the course syllabus asks, "How can designers and planners become active agents in amking positive changes in the world? How can design and planning be part of social movement and environmental activism?" At the University of Washington, perhaps, that change begins wtih education and engagement with the issues at hand.