Monday, November 28, 2005

Interview with Phillip Koski

This weeks Activist Architect is Phillip Koski of IOTA / Inland Office for Tomorrow's Architecture. Phillip was a recent guest in our Professional Practice course at CALA to discuss the development of his firm with business partner Judy Grundstorm. It was an inspiring class, but now in this interview we found out what else Philip is up to…

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

Phillip Koski: Chair, Minneapolis Preservation Commission, a quasi judicial citizen review panel that regulates new construction and renovation of historic properties, as well as new projects in historic districts within the City of Minneapolis.

Chair, Architecture Minnesota committee, an advisory committee to the editor of the bi-monthly publication of the AIA Minnesota.

Member of the Saint Anthony Falls Heritage Board, an advisory board established by state statute in 1988 and composed of elected officials (the mayor, county commissioners, council members, etc.), members of the public, and representatives of local preservation institutions. Board oversees and provides seed funding for capital improvements and educational programs in the Heritage Zone. Visible projects include planning for the Mill City Museum and re-opening of the Stone Arch Bridge, to name a couple.

2003-2004 Neighborhood representative to the Lake Street Reconstruction Public Advisory Committee (PAC), providing community input into the design of roadway, sidewalk, and streetscape elements for Lake Street from Dupont Avenue to West River Road.

Member and former vice-chair of the Corcoran Land-Use Committee, a volunteer committee that offers input into the creation of masterplan documents for this south Minneapolis neighborhood, and comments on the design and implementation of new projects that effect residents.

Member, "Team 007." Ad Hoc group of Minneapolis preservation champions who meet monthly to increase awareness and promote a dialogue about preservation in Minneapolis. Two programs that have grown out of this group are "Breakfast with a Preservationist" and "Cocktails with a preservationist."

Participant and team leader for the annual AIA-MN "Search for Shelter" design charrette.

Author of magazine column, "Citizen Architect," for Architecture Minnesota. The objective of the column is to explore, recognize, and celebrate the many ways architects contribute to community outside of traditional practice – through activism, education, writing and advocacy, urban design, political engagement, and so on.

Board Member, Franklin Art Works, a nationally acclaimed non-profit visual and performing arts center housed in a former porn theatre in the Philips Neighborhood of Minneapolis. Franklin Art Works fosters national and international emerging talent through a unique program of single artist shows.

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

PK: In the Spring of 2001, the firm I was working for got a call from the City letting us know that there was an opening on the Preservation Commission, and that they needed a registered architect with ample time and interest to serve. The information eventually bubbled down to me. I was working on the renovation of the Pantages theatre at that time, needed a hobby – the idea seemed to fit. I was never much of a joiner, but thought I'd give it a try. I interviewed and was appointed a couple months later. The job is fun and demanding and you get to meet all of the big players in and out of city hall. For months I made all my friends call me "Commissioner".

Once I started serving on the HPC, it seemed like everybody and their pet hamster would ask me to join some task force or committee. What I learned is that non-profits and community groups can sniff out a willing volunteer like pigs sniff out truffles. Being relatively young, idealistic and having a modicum of free time makes you an ideal volunteer.

I wish I could say my current level of community involvement was more deliberate. The truth is - simply – that when people asked, I never said 'no.'

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?

PK: I don't know if it would even be possible to carve out a part of my life for "community activism" and keep it separate from my work, my friends, and my personal home life. When you adopt a personal position that you care – and that you are willing take action to improve the world around you – it's hard to have boundaries.

My partner Billy and I, for example, have a typical turn-of-the-century home in the Corcoran neighborhood in south Minneapolis. One of the first things we did was to re-open our front porch, which like most houses on our block had been covered with storm windows sometime in the 1960s or 70s. We joke that we "liberated" the front porch, but in reality we created a place that is both private and public. We spend a lot of time on the porch, and friends and neighbors really do stop by, and people with petitions and campaign literature stop by. We've learned that people have actually changed their driving routes to pass by our house, and if they see us on the porch, they'll join us for few minutes, or for a cold beer, or stay for dinner. But they don't stop if they don’t see us.

The porch is just one way we keep our lives connected to community. Serving on a board or being a block captain is a really visible way of expressing that connection, but it also impacts what kind of architectural projects I'll take or turn down in the office, what materials we specify, what kind of groceries we buy, what we plant in our yard, what charities we support, what topics I cover in my magazine column. All of these decisions come from the same impetus, the same source. To make the city I live in better. It really is a think global, act local approach.

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?

PK: Your question is similar to my original pitch for the column "Citizen Architect." Rephrasing your question a bit, the column explores the many ways that architects can and do contribute to the public good outside of traditional practice. – through volunteerism, activism, advocacy, education, writing, political involvement, sustainable design, preservation, and so on. The list, I found, is virtually endless. There are thousands of great examples of activist architects – but they just don't get a lot of press. Making their stories public and increasing awareness is one way to make their work more effective. I only wish the readership of Architecture Minnesota was larger. Right now we've got about 10,000 readers mostly from across the region. Heck, we do what we can.

It's clear that architects have a highly developed set of skills that can contribute enormously to community dialogue – especially when the city and neighborhoods are faced with development, transportation, and infrastructure projects. It's also very clear that most people regard the profession very highly, and the opinion of an architect can be very persuasive.

But just because an architect is skilled and persuasive, it does not follow that the architect is always right. You need to use your power for good, not for evil. Listening and respecting the opinions and views of others is an important part of design as well as community activism. If you are good at one, you'll be good at both.

I had a boss in Virginia who always repeated the phrase, "If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem." It may be wearing thin on shoe leather, but I still believe in the message. Architects can't stay at home at night and read the papers and see all these bad decisions being made and then go to the office and whine smugly while designing million dollar homes for rich people in wetland areas at the end of the highway on the urban periphery.

But its not just architects that need to be responsible, it's everyone. Since starting on the Preservation Commission, and seeing the powerful effect that a few vocal residents can have on our deliberations, I've come to a simple conclusion: democracy belongs to those who show up. It doesn't take all that much. It means voting, for starters. But if you don't like your taxes, or the quality of your schools, or the potholes in your street – then you have to take a night here and there and tromp down to city hall and have your say. The democratic system is in place and working perfectly– if we have problems it's because nobody's using it.

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

I give financially to charity probably no more or less than other bleeding heart liberals. Aside from direct monetary giving, I contribute a huge amount of my time to volunteer efforts. When I sit in meetings on boards and committees, I offer that time as an engaged resident of my neighborhood or city.

As a practicing architect, and if I can grind an axe for minute… One of the biggest mistakes architects make is to forget that our time IS money. Every hour we donate to a cause could be time we bill to a client. In my firm, IOTA [Inland Office for Tomorrow's Architecture], when we contribute architectural services we create an invoice based on our standard hourly fee, and then credit the amount on the invoice as a charitable contribution. We mail it to the pro bono client so they can see the monetary worth of the work we gave them.

This topic represents a huge dilemma for the profession – how do we contribute our skills and time to a worthy effort, and at the same time impress upon the public the economic and social value of good design? Whenever architects give away services for free or cheap, we devalue the worth of our work. On the other hand, if we decline the requests by non-profits and charities that really could benefit from an architect's input, we continue the broad perception that architectural design is a superfluous luxury reserved for rich and elite.

The only win-win that we've found is to provide some services pro bono, but to treat the charity as any other client, with clearly understood deadlines, shared responsibilities, and insist on a reasonable timetable for decision making. And as I mentioned earlier, we let them know the value of the service they receive, translated into dollars.

It may seem hard-nosed, but our experience shows that our pro bono clients are completely happy with this arrangement - they like the structure of the process, they respect the effort we put into a project, and they are grateful for the service they receive. We haven't been turned down yet.

And since I'm known to be etymologically fixated, I'd like to clear up the origin of the term "pro bono," which most people associate with "free of charge." It's a Latin phrase, of course, but it doesn't mean free at all. In America it's been abbreviated – unfortunately - from the original "pro bono publico", strictly meaning, "for the public good". The term is most often used by lawyers to describe "doing legal work donated esp. for the public good," (Source: Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of Law, © 1996 Merriam-Webster, Inc.)

The point is, an architect cannot provide "pro bono" services to a private, for profit company or client – in that case, call it what it is; a giveaway. If you're going to donate your work, make sure you have some "publico" on the receiving end.

AA: Can you please help in providing images, web links or any information on the activities you participate in?


AA: Are there any other individuals or organizations that you can refer us to that also may participate in social justice and community activism?

PK: In Minneapolis, every neighborhood has some form of local organization, usually aligned with the Neighborhood Revitalization Program (or NRP). Within each organization there are different committees that oversee different livability issues, including land-use committees, residential housing committees, transportation, neighborhood safety, etc. The easiest way for a resident to effect change around them is by attending meetings and speaking out. You can find information about your local neighborhood organization on the NRP website:

Minneapolis also has over 45 boards and commissions, largely filled by regular citizens. Broad representation on these boards is desired, but difficult to achieve. Young adults (say, under 35 years of age) are notably absent from these volunteer bodies. More information can be found at:

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Political Activism by AIA MN

I recently attended a session at the AIA Minnesota Annual Convention about the legislative initiatives currently underway by AIA MN and its associates. Because AIA MN is a large organized group of professionals, it can serve as a successful constituent in pushing for legislation that supports its goals. This political involvement is probably one of the best ways, after the work being done by the housing advocacy committee, that the AIA in Minnesota pushes an activist agenda. The four initiatives discussed at the session included:

  • High Performance Buildings Initiative. Senate File 1685 by Senator Larry Pogemiller and House File 2015 by Representative Laura Brod aim to provide certain tax incentives for the construction of high performance commercial buildings. So that the bill does not impede on the tax base for the state, the method utilized is to reduce the assessed value of high performance buildings so that the owners are taxed at a lower rate. In other words, if the building exceeds the energy code by 20-30%, the market value of the buildings is reduced by 5%. The increment of reduction increases as the amount of energy used decreases.
Dee Long, a member of ME3, explained this legislation to the convention. Many states, including New York, Oregon and Maryland already have tax credits for green buildings, and of course the new B3 guidelines in Minnesota make it mandatory for all publicly funded buildings to be green. This law would provide an incentive for private buildings to follow suit. Because the law results in a reduction in taxes to the state, it has not successfully passed at this point, although it has had more luck in the Senate than it has in the House.

  • Historic Preservation Tax Credit. Since 1976, there has been a federal tax credit for commercial buildings that reutilize an existing historic building. At the convention, architect Chuck Liddy explained a bill that would supplement this federal tax credit with a Minnesota credit. If a cost of historic preservation in Minnesota exceeds 50% of the base cost of the construction, the owner could recoup a 25% tax credit via a reduction in state income taxes. Unlike the federal credit, the Minnesota credit could be applied to both commercial and residential property.
This bill is being strongly pushed by the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota as a way to encourage the preservation and utilization of existing structures in the state. The bill is listed under Senate File No. 1659 and House File No. 1731. Liddy noted that many committee members are asking for architects to serve on the committee to help make decisions regarding the feasibility of the bill.

  • Transit for Livable Communities. Transportation Choices 2020 proposes a 1/2% regional sales tax in the metropolitan area to fund the full Metrotransit plan for the area by the year 2020. The metropolitan area of Minneapolis has the eighth highest number of lane miles per capita compared to any other city in the U.S. Part of the problem with funding transit projects is that there is no dedicated source of funding for them. This bill proposes to change that.
Transit for Livable Communities is a nonprofit organization committed to encouraging alternate modes of transit in Minnesota. One of the biggest Catch 22s in the industry is that current funding for transit comes from a tax an automotive sales. As people buy fewer automobiles and begin to use more public transit, ironically it results in less money available statewide for transit projects.

  • Renewable Electricity Standard. Currently, Minnesota requires its utilities to "make a good faith effort" to meet 10% of their electricity needs with renewable sources. ME3 is currently pushing for legislation that requires the utilities to have 20% of the total energy come from renewable sources by 2020. Twenty other states have similar legislation already in action.
ME3 views this legislation as a key to encouraging the economic development of renewable sources in Minnesota. Our "fleet" of coal-powered plants is ready to be replaced by a new generation of electricity sources, and it would be best if we could replace them with renewable sources.

Although each of these pieces of legislation were introduced by nonprofit organizations other than the AIA, the AIA has been fully supportive of these bills. Many of the presenters identified how important it was for them to have the backing of a professional institution like the AIA. Although we as architects and designers may shy away from becoming involved in the legislative scene, it is clear that our activism in pushing for laws that define the built environment is an important part of our professional responsibility. Getting involved with AIA MN"s Government Affairs Committee is one way to make your voice heard.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Make no small demands: the INURA

INURA ( International Network of Urban Research and Action ) is a network of people involved in action and research in localities and cities. There goals are herculean - to disempower the current global players, and make profits in neoliberal terms, unsustainable. The Network consists of activists and researchers from community and environmental groups, universities, and local administrations, who wish to share experineces and to participate in common research. Examples of the issues that Network members are involved in include: major urban renewal projects, the urban periphery, community-led environmental schemes, urban traffic and transport, inner city labour markets, do-it-yourself culture, and social housing provision. In each case, the research is closely tied to, and is a product of, local action and initiative. There are many architects and planners connected to this world wide project.

Yamani Hernandez, Activist Student in Seattle

Activist Architect was recently contacted by Yamani Hernandez, an architecture student at the University of Washington in Seattle. Yamani maintains her own blog, Strange Bungalow, that serves as her a vehicle for her musings about the social issues related to art and architecture. It's great for us to be able to discuss similiar issues regarding activism and architecture across the U.S. We asked Yamani to fill us in on the activism scene in Washington as well as explain the work she's been doing with her thesis on the subject. Here are her responses:

Activist Architect: What is the architectural activism scene in Seattle?

Yamani Hernandez:
Hmm, I think it depends on how architectural activism is defined. That's something I'm still trying to ascertain myself. I'm certainly not hooked into everything that's going on. There's a ton of public art that interfaces with buildings and "community design" related work that I think fits under the broader scope of architectural activism. There is a community design center, Environmental Works which almost exclusively focuses on affordable sustainable housing. Another organization, the pomegrante center, works with communities to build gathering places. Then there are two tent cities.

AA: What is the University of Washington doing in this vein?

The University of Washington actually offers a number of courses ranging from community oriented design build studios, to the design activism course taught by Dr. Jeff Hou, to ethics in community building class taught by Dr. Sharon E. Sutton. She also used to coordinate a city-wide charrette with students and community members on politically important design projects. I think the undergraduate studios are a lot more socially oriented than the graduate ones.

AA: How do you combine your passion with your education?

YH: I came to architecture school as a speculative endeavor. There's the age old debate of whether you "can you destroy the master's house with the master's tools." I think oft times the answer is yes. I wanted to learn those tools to know how to subvert them. I think it's been hard for me to pursue architecture education. Many times I find that I'm less interested in the actual building, as an object, than I am in the circumstances, people and politics around such buildings in neighborhoods and how they all weave together. Also, I sometimes find that architecture as most know and love it feels very counter to my principles about empowerment. It seems that so much of the popular concept of architecture is about "experts", consumption, waste and vanity that it's hard for me to meld that with what I think architecture can say and do. I'm not interested in working for rich people. There are plenty of people who want to do that. I want to work with and for people who are underserved to create environments that serve them holistically, whether that be an unsanctioned emergency shelter, a homeless shelter, or a rehab clinic.

AA: What's your thesis on?

YH: My current title is: Typologies of Resistance in the Built Environment: Intersections of Architecture, Art and Activism. My research is essentially comprised of doing analytical case studies and interviews on boundary breaking professionals and projects which transcend all three realms. I want to illustrate for activists that architecture can be used as a tool for social change work, make a case for architects (who don't already realize) that architecture is not just about commodities, and use activist art as a precedent. I want to know if architecture can be a direct activist act. Can it directly support or oppose a given social issue and provoke public debate and action? Why or why not? Somewhere nestled in there are also ideas of hybridity in that there are many artists who use the tools and vocabulary of architecture yet their work is not architecture. Why? Why not?

AA: Who are the activists that you turn to as role models?

You know, I think I'm still figuring that out. I don't know if I have real "role models" right now, although my thesis advisors, Dr. Sharon E. Sutton and Dr. Jeff Hou, are a start. Everytime I try to put someone on a pedestal as a "role model" I get disappointed. There are bits and pieces of people and work that I really take to heart. Street artists inspire me. Definitely the unsanctioned building featured on the one small project site speaks to me. People that do things out of neccessity and those that break boundaries and convention - those people are my heroes.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Interview with Rosemary Dolata, LHB

This week's local activist architect is Rosemary Dolata, an architect with LHB, Inc. in Minneapolis. Rosie has been active with the AIA's Search for Shelter charrette and is also very involved in her local neighborhood organization. Here are her responses to our interview:

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

Rosemary Dolata:
My “activism” primarily focuses on the issues of affordable housing and homelessness, and sustainable design. Two places where my passion has found a home are the Kingfield Neighborhood of Minneapolis and the A.I.A. (American Institute of Architects) Minnesota Housing Advocacy Committee.

In my Minneapolis neighborhood, I have been very instrumental in guiding redevelopment policy.
As a neighborhood organization, we have implemented a “Kingfield Neighborhood Affordable Housing Statement” and “Kingfield Neighborhood Design & Development Guidelines.” These tools, combined with a proactive redevelopment committee and supportive board of directors, have allowed us to develop positive relationships with developers, resulting in new housing opportunities within the neighborhood.

As a member of the Housing Advocacy Committee, I have helped to facilitate 15 Search for Shelter Design Charrettes. These charrettes connect volunteer design professionals and students with agencies serving poor and homeless people. The pro bono designs created over the span of a weekend allow these agencies to better serve their clients and envision new facilities and homes.

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

RD: A bit of serendipity led me to the Kingfield Neighborhood Association. In 2001 an individual approached the A.I.A. Minnesota Volunteer Clearinghouse seeking assistance in evaluating a vacant nursing home as the potential site for a residence intended to help transition young people from foster care to independent adulthood. My role was supposed to be to find a volunteer. But looking at the project I saw myself. My architectural thesis project had been creating housing for homeless youth. I lived in the same neighborhood as the proposed site. And, at work I was beginning a project reclaiming a vacant nursing home for affordable housing.

After visiting the facility, I attended my first neighborhood meeting with the visionary foster mother leading the project. At that meeting, I learned about a proposal to raze two single family homes in order to make space for a parking lot. I raised my hand and asked the property owners to please consider relocating, rather than land-filling, the houses. I offered to make some phones calls. And, thus it began. Before I knew it, I was part of an affordable housing group and a member of the redevelopment committee. In 2003, I was elected to the board of directors. When the office came open mid-year, I was selected to be the vice president.

My initial connection to the A.I.A. Minnesota Housing Advocacy Committee (formerly the Search for Shelter Steering Committee) in 1991, was much more straight forward and took the form of old-fashion arm twisting. As a basic design student (pre-architecture), I had had Dennis Grebner as a professor. Dennis was one of the original organizers of Search for Shelter in the mid-1980’s. He recruited many of his students and former students each year to participate in the annual design charrettes. Recognizing that I had a particularly strong interest in homelessness and affordable housing, Dennis invited me to join the steering committee and even provided transportation for me from the University to International Market Square for the monthly meetings. I’ve been an active member of the committee ever since, including being the committee’s publication editor for many years.

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?

RD: The activities I’ve described here are both “on the side;” however, my volunteer life and work life very closely parallel one another. In my professional role at LHB, I work exclusively on housing projects, the overwhelming majority of which are created specifically for low-income renters and home owners. I think my professional work experience helps my volunteer work and visa versa.

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?


I offer the following story as an example of my own experience.

In 1994, I attended a conference of the National Coalition for the Homeless, which was held in Minneapolis. The event, entitled “Homelessness: Renewing Our Commitment,” brought together experts and activists from all over the country. When participants I met there asked me how I was connected to the issue, I responded that I was in my final year of architecture school, believing I had answered the question. In return they looked at me quizzically and asked, “What does that have to do with homelessness?” I was dumbfounded.

These well-intended conference goers understood housing as a social justice concern, an economic problem and a policy issue, but they failed to recognize the value and opportunities inherent in the physical world we create. That’s where we as architects and designers must step forward.

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

RD:Of course, my personal time is all pro bono. Fortunately, each of the organizations I’ve described has a budget that allows for some paid staff support.

In the case of KFNA, the Kingfield Neighborhood Association, funding has come predominately from the Neighborhood Revitalization Program. As we recognize this funding to be finite, one of the Board’s current goals is to seek alternative funding sources in order to maintain the organization’s staff. (Click here for information on Kingfield's involvement with the Center for Neighborhood's Corridor Housing Initiative.)

The Housing Advocacy Committee is provided with a staff liaison by A.I.A. Minnesota. A.I.A. Minneapolis and A.I.A. St. Paul offer financial assistance for our charrettes and publications.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005


Building More, Wanting Less : architects searching for relevance, one person, and one small project at a time, is a forth coming book inspired by the over 1 billion left over people in our world. These people inhabit the fringes of our society; squatters, slums, or the displaced, claim the left over spaces. Here is a book that brings their poverty to our reality and the architects that are working on this global crisis. Their idea is simple; build shelter out of left over material. There is enough for everyone. It is also a call for submissions send them your work or project that find relevance in architecture that help the poor.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Mark Lakeman: Communitecture and City Repair

When it comes to sustainable communities and grassroots community activism, Portland, Oregon is often held up as a model city. The work of activist architect Mark Lakeman demonstrates the multi-faceted nature of projects currently under way in the city. Some of the organizations with which Lakeman is involved include:

- The City Repair Project, which defines itself as a "group of citizen activists creating public gathering places and helping others to creatively transform the places where they live." The organization was formed in 1996 when a group of residents decide to reclaim a local residential intersection as a public gathering place. Community members came together to bring public ammenities to the intersection and paint the street as a way of demarcating the project. Since then, City Repair has been involved in a number of other projects, including community potlucks and demonstration projects at the local county fair. The organization completes its projects affordably, with volunteer help and at little to no cost to the city of Portland.

- Communitecture, Mark Lakeman's design firm. The firm originally formed as a way to provide City Repair with architectural and technical expertise. Communitecture has now expanded to include other types of projects in the city as well, but maintains its focus on community and creating a public sense of place.

- Dignity Village, a group of self-organized homeless individuals who began as a tent city in Portland. The grassroots organization is now working with the city to gain access to permanent land on which to build a sustainable and more permanent village of small shelters for the homeless. Lakeman assisted Dignity Village with developing its master plan to present to the city for approval and has been active with the organization from the beginning.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Who Will Organize the Architects Union ?

Architects may need to consider activism within the practice to retain jobs domestically. It is increasingly common that architectural services are being outsourced abroad along with other services and high-tech jobs. Are we as architects deluding ourselves by assuming that our design skills will translate into other fulfilling jobs here at home, while the work we are being specifically trained to do is contracted abroad to lower labor costs ?