Some years ago in a nice Seattle suburb, Pyatok Architects designed a group of condominiums for low-income renters. As construction on the buildings neared completion, people would drive by and ask the crew when the condos were going up for sale. "We'd love to buy one of these," they'd confide, "but we're worried about that stuff next door." In contrast to the firm's beautifully proportioned and detailed buildings, the neighborhood's market-rate housing appeared prosaic.

It is not unusual for architect Michael Pyatok's subsidized-housing projects to be mistaken for upscale condos. Pyatok, FAIA, who heads up a staff of 27 architects and planners in Seattle and Oakland, Calif., turns class discrimination on its head by designing below-market housing that would blend in with the best-designed residential developments. In the past decade, the firm has won more than 50 local and national design awards. But just as important, Pyatok is a savvy politician. He is a master at overcoming zoning restrictions, the fears of suburbanites, and the chaos of a poor community itself to create a local infrastructure of services and income opportunities, so that tenants cannot only live safely and comfortably, but also invest in their surroundings.

"There's a political role to design," Pyatok says, "and that is the message it sends to the people living there and the generations afterward who live around it. If it's done well, it's like saying all those folks who collaborated to make the place—the community, the lenders, the developer, the insurance company, the architect—had a high degree of respect for the people getting housing."

the man with the vision

As a low-income housing advocate, Pyatok is uncompromising in his commitment to clients. When the Oakland Community Organization asked his firm to help rezone and develop a five-acre site across from an abandoned cannery in the Jingletown neighborhood, it was interested in not a fast-track Section 8 project, but one that hardworking families could live with long term. It took eight years to navigate the bureaucratic zoning and funding process and build the project. Pyatok hosted design sessions at the local Catholic church, hiring bilingual architects to make sure he could communicate with all the residents of the 100-year-old neighborhood, many of them of Portuguese and Mexican descent.

The result, in 1997, yielded 53 units, softly colored and articulated with bays, trellised balconies, and clean grids of windows. On the smaller homes, buyers were provided with blueprints for adding an attic bedroom and bath. Some homes have adjacent spaces for future garages with a bedroom above. Others have living rooms on the second floor and a bedroom on the first floor to allow for a home-based business. And many are paired as duplexes to blend in with the neighborhood's single-family Victorian and Craftsman-style homes.

"Mike was the person who believed in our vision and said it could be done when we felt like industry and the banks turned their backs on us," says Jingletown organizer Susana Villarreal. Later, the cannery was transformed into a retail shopping center, and a charter school followed. "Because of our relationship with Mike, the next projects came in," she says. "Mike made sure we got things right. He was like a regular guy to us. People grew fond of him."

Pyatok is that rare species of architect who eschews the star power that comes with high-end commissions. But he hasn't escaped celebrity status in his chosen niche. Tasneem Chowdhury, coordinator of the affordable-housing program at the University of Illinois' City Design Center, Chicago, likes to call Pyatok the "rock star" of affordable housing. "He is to affordable housing what Frank Gehry is to museums," she says. "He can do a lot with little money to achieve a very upscale look." Professor Jim Stockard, curator of Harvard Design School's Loeb Fellowship, which Pyatok received in 1983, agrees: "Michael gives up nothing to the people who'd consider themselves designers with a capital 'D.'"

But Pyatok is not exclusively an architect of affordable housing. His other projects range from Oakland City Hall Plaza to Potrero Square Lofts—the conversion of a warehouse in San Francisco to market-rate housing—to Swan's Marketplace, a mixed-use historic public market. Currently in construction is Landmark Place, an elegant, $12-million condominium project in the heart of Oakland's Victorian district.

Four years ago, the firm designed some student housing with Esherick Homsey Dodge & Davis, San Francisco, which specializes in institutional work, aquariums, and high-end homes. "We had a good time working together," Pyatok says. "When I visited their offices, I marveled at their sample library and remarked that they had a completely different set from us—real wood, real marble, real granite, brick, and metals I'd never seen before. I have these brief moments of, 'Gee, what did I do with my life?' But they only last about five minutes."