Academic Trend #1: Public-Interest Design

PREFACE: The next three posts will cover what I believe are the three most prevalent trends in architectural education: public-interest design, digital fabrication, and environmental sustainability. These three paths of interest have become significant factors in terms of decisions surrounding and the (re)structuring of programs, faculty, curricula, and pedagogy, at least in North American schools. There is some overlap between the three trends (i.e., a given student may be interested in pursuing more than one), but probably not as much as one would imagine in practice. In fact, each trend is comprised of a corollary camp of faculty and students, even if this is a somewhat unfair caricature. And of course, there are many other interests that students have that fall outside of these three topics, including socio-cultural aspects or specific building types, such as housing. But at this point in time, I would argue that these either have yet to reach a critical mass (again, in the North American context) or that their time has passed. What I find interesting about these three particular trends is that they are primarily driven into a state of trendiness by student passion. Of course, student passion is socially, culturally, and historically situated–but the point is that, in comparison to other, historical trends in architectural education, students are not always the source. So while there are ostensibly practitioners and/or faculty members with the expertise to mobilize student interest, the recent level of popularity occurred only after a generation of students graduated and took on these as topics as career projects. Of course, young people being interested in something does not inherently make it a socially or politically positive trend; it only gives it potential. But the mobilization of passion and youthful idealism is not a bad place place to start. What I want to explore in each of these trends, if not necessarily quite yet, is how the notion of ‘critical’ can play a role in imbuing each with greater socio-political relevance and utility–how a healthy dose of critical self-reflection might serve to reconfigure or reconceptualize the set of teaching and learning activities that characterizes that particular strain of design. And, as always, bear in mind that these are my own editorialized thoughts, so they should be taken with a grain of salt.

The first trend is public-interest design, an umbrella term covering community-based design, design activism, humanitarian design, pro-bono work, etc., and proffered by groups like Architecture for Humanity, Design Corps, Public Architecture. Centered on the notion of “democratizing design”, the movement includes “an array of efforts aimed at making good design much more readily accessible to historically under-resourced communities across the U.S. and worldwide” ( While these ideas go back decades, this particular generation has arguably helped take them to unprecedented level of public standing. What once was limited to counter-culture circles is now fairly mainstream practice, at least in academia. The most vocal advocates of the movements have even gained star status and helping to publicize their (not always explicit) critique of mainstream design practice. Still, the movement remains undertheorized. While much has been published about public-interest design projects, the philosophy and methodology of the movement are rarely the focus of critical inquiry. This shouldn’t come as much surprise, since the ethos of such work tends to follow a form of pragmatism that seeks to evade ‘theory’ and criticism. In fact, a trace of defensive insularity emits from the leaders and disciples, as if the slightest critical gaze would undermine their project. Again, a defensive posture is not totally unjustified: mainstream architectural practice has been plagued by a self-righteous machismo for so long that each of its offspring, including landscape architecture, urban planning, and urban design, still define themselves largely by how they are unlike architecture. For some, the public-interest design movement might be analog to the public health movement that successfully splintered off from conventional medical programs decades ago, suggesting that, given the significant differences with conventional practice, public-interest design, too, might require its own degree programs. Do significant differences in ontology, epistemology, methodology (not to mention ethical foundation) require complete academic segregation? What is the value of keeping public-interest design part of conventional professional programs that are structured by NAAB accreditation standards? Obviously, there are pros and cons to either approach. But it will be interesting to see which direction becomes more popular in the coming years. For the few existing programs that are specifically oriented to public-interest design, the notion of architecture as a discipline all but falls to the wayside: design practice begins to dissolve disciplinary boundaries and traditional expert-community relations, as well as the traditional studio model based on detached autonomy and hypothetical relationships.

For now, students in architecture programs passionate about public-interest design likely find themselves drawn to those individual studios that focus on community-based design: here, they might have the opportunity to engage with real clients, collaborate with other disciplines, and/or partake in design-build projects, all of which challenges the conventional studio model. Then, upon graduation, they might apply for the Rose Fellowship or work for a non-profit design firm. But, for these students and their like-minded champions in academic positions, is it enough to simply take a studio, if one happens to be offered? Or does architectural education have to adapt to meet the specific demands of such students? Professors John Comazzi and Jim Lutz, from the University of Minnesota, recently led a group of M.Arch students to post-earthquake Haiti as part of a service learning project. In their follow-up report, they argued that architecture programs must adapt to meet the needs of such a unique mode of design learning and practice:

“There is a strong ethos of service in this generation of emerging professionals. Architecture schools need to recognize this or risk becoming irrelevant to a growing number of their students who desire outlets for their work beyond the realm of the academy and see community engagement as a critical part of their education” (584).

Graduate students who fall within this camp tend to enter professional programs with strong ethical commitments to the tenets of public-interest design, whether or not they are aware of the existing network of design professionals. It is rare that architecture school itself provides the kind of life experience to transform an apathetic student into a humanitarian. So there’s a bit of self-selection occurring: for the more worldly, do-gooder types, the decision to attend a particular school likely rests on how well they believe that program (and, more likely, particular the pedagogy of faculty members) matches their ethical beliefs. That ethically-minded students would choose to enter architecture is, at the very least, heartening. And architecture schools would be wise to harness their passion and idealism. But the splintering that may or may not be occurring between public-interest design and conventional architecture education raises some concerns.

First, public-interest design is so focused on the “making” and “doing” aspects (service, outreach, prototyping, analysis, promotion) that it rarely values the “thinking” aspects that should be paired with such important work (theoretical self-reflection, history, criticism, lessons from cultural studies, etc.). Thus, there may be a tendency for public-interest design to become utterly divorced from critical activity and to perceive more cerebral work as purely obstructive. But the nature of public-interest design demands critical thinking and critical theory: this mode of design raises a slew of questions around concepts like power, disciplinarity, autonomy, community, colonialism, capitalism, and globalization that often lie unnoticed in conventional practice. This is one of the great values of public-interest design, but its potential has yet to be tapped because the antipathy towards (postmodern) ‘theory’ remains so powerful.

Second, with the foundation of public-interest design being its ethical framework (as critique of mainstream practice), the issue of aesthetics is largely absent or ignored. Perhaps this derives from a false understanding that, if one were to focus too heavily on aesthetics, it would undermine the ethical substance of the movement. Or maybe, the idea is that aesthetics are no longer important to the public-interest designer–that in a truly democratic design process, aesthetic values tend toward norms of popular culture and away from high culture. But let’s not kid ourselves: aesthetics can’t be wished away. And, in fact, many public-interest design projects are clearly driven by aesthetic considerations that are not reached democratically. But before I get carried away and start pointing fingers and crying out “hypocrisy!”, I want to clarify my point: architectural design is a service to the public, yes; but it also produces a cultural artifact that is experienced and judged through sets of aesthetic values. By ostensibly critiquing the notion that mainstream practice focuses too heavily on aesthetics at the expense of ethics, the public-interest design movement should be careful not to further dichotomize ethics and aesthetics (or, in that case, process and product). Rather, both should be employed toward the worthy cause of empowerment for the 99%, if you will.


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