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:


Blogger Bridger said...

You bloggers rock! Great interview with Phillip, glad you followed up his class appearance and gave him a forum for quieter conversation. He is a fine model of a very professional commited "activist architect" or as he calls it "citizen architect".

And we wonder how to manage our time?

5:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi, I am not an architect. However, I am Phillip’s friend. We met in a class as honor students at the University of Minnesota, when the bricks toward his future as an activist architect were already laid. I recall discussions of Phillip’s vision of an ideal world, where homes sit along the quiet streets with family grocers and other small businesses at the end of each residential street. I recall his frustration with buildings designed with no thought to context – the natural and human-made environments in which the building was erected. His explanation of the private and public front porch on his own home is just like Phillip to me!

While visiting my home in Barrow, Alaska, in the summer of 2004, Phillip and Billy took many photos and made several sketches of homes in the Eskimo village. It was the homes that had stubbornly survived the harsh arctic conditions that received Phillip’s attention.

Phillip was driven to be an architect from a young age (12, I think). When he announced imminent plans to start his business, IOTA (Inland Office for Tomorrow’s Architecture), I was excited for him. I am glad for Phillip and his clients that he is able to bring his idealism to his work in a real way. He reminds us that architecture and all talents can make our worlds more beautiful and community centered.

Kimberly Mack

10:12 AM  
Anonymous Andrew Hine said...

Phillip is a gem! I wish him (and Judy, and Billy) all the best in the world.

"Schmidt Happens"

1:50 PM  
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Anonymous dojuma said...

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Anonymous Inove Reformas e Construções said...

Parabéns pelo artigo. Recomendamos a todos a leitura.

Nos apresentando, a Inove atua na área da Construção Civil, especializada em Pintura e Textura. Trabalhamos com: Pintura Predial, Pintura de Galpão, Pintura Comercial, Pintura Residencial, Reformas e Construções.

Inove Reformas e Construções

12:55 PM  

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