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public interest architecture

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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 ideally be.”

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, schools, libraries.

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.

 

 

 


 

 

 
 

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