public interest architecture
Continuing a rare burst of mainstream attention to the future of architecture, this piece envisions the field evolving to serve the
public more broadly. The analogy it draws is this: Public interest architecture
is to conventional architecture as public health is to medicine.
... architecture remains a luxury available only to a privileged few. The
field has long wrestled with its elitism; books have been written, conferences
staged, and museum exhibitions mounted around estimates that architecture and
good design are accessible to only a select sliver of the population. Yet
architecture shapes everyone by creating the environments around us, impacting
our collective quality of life. As philosopher Alain de Botton once wrote,
“Belief in the significance of architecture is premised on the notion that we
are, for better or worse, different people in different places—and on the
conviction that it is architecture’s task to render vivid to us who we might
Like public health did for medicine, the emerging field of public interest
design offers a new direction for architecture, one that takes into account the
needs of the other 99 percent of the population that has historically been
marginalized or disempowered from shaping their environments. While
architecture has divorced itself from related fields like environmental
psychology, landscape architecture, and urban planning, public interest design
seeks to reunite them—not for the good of the profession, its image, or its
bottom line, but for the benefit of society.
Sounds great, but I'm not clear on how this differs from public architecture
as we know it: Work produced for the general public good, such as parks,
Here's how the Public Interest Design program at the University of Texas
frames the emergence of this sub-discipline:
In the United States, laws, rules and regulations
have been enacted regarding the practice of architecture through licensure. In return,
architects have the responsibility to create the physical world in a way that
improves conditions and makes progress towards the greater public benefit,
serving the general public just as other professionals do. However, the
profession has largely focused on a small part of the population and a very
limited set of issues, and it is currently the wealthy, the powerful, and large
institutions that are involved in design decisions.
There is an opportunity to change this now. The
green design movement has opened a door. The public has realized a critical
link between design and the environment, and between design and the future of
our planet. The realization that design can play a role in addressing critical
issues makes this a time to go further: to show how design can address other
important issues as well, such as the impact design has on the social and
economic well-being of the built environment. It is time for the green design
movement to realize its full potential: to take the best ideas of the leading
practitioners and from the most effective products, and shape these into
accessible and transferable tools for the general public to use to make the
built environment more socially and ecologically just.
Here's a video of one of the program's volunteer projects.
This is great, but I feel like I'm still missing something. Architecture--the kind that employs architects--costs money, and someone still has to pay for it: wealthy people, corporations, or the public. Carnegie built libraries; the New York Central Railroad built Grand Central Station, New York City built Central Park. Architecture that serves the public good has always been available. The question has always been how to pay for it. I'm all for deepening our understanding of how architecture and urban planning can improve lives. But getting architecture that serves us best, without awaiting the good offices of wealthy patrons or corporations--or chipping away at it ourselves every weekend--seems more a matter of political will than of architectural wherewithal.
Any thoughts? I'd love to hear what others have to say about this. --b.d.s.