Most of the time, John Peterson, AIA, projects a laid-back personality—the kind you'd expect him to have after 15 years in mellow San Francisco. But get him talking about a project that Public Architecture, the nonprofit he founded, is working on, and suddenly he can't talk quickly or enthusiastically enough. “I'm a project junkie,” he admits.
It's easy to get caught up in his excitement: His four-year-old organization can already boast significant achievements. Its “1% Solution” program has convinced 75 architecture firms to reserve one percent of their working hours for pro bono service, sparking a national conversation about the role of such work. Public Architecture also led the design of ScrapHouse, a temporary demonstration home on San Francisco's Civic Center Plaza that drew more than 10,000 visitors in June 2005. Made exclusively from salvaged and reused materials and assembled with the labor of 150 volunteers, the project fit perfectly with Peterson and Public Architecture executive director John Cary's community-based mindset. So do their other endeavors, from an open-space plan for the SoMa district of San Francisco to a consulting role on a community center by The Miller/Hull Partnership.
In addition to guiding Public Architecture (and, this past year, living in Cambridge, Mass., as a 2005–2006 Loeb Fellow at Harvard's Graduate School of Design), Peterson keeps himself busy running Peterson Architects, a 10-person, for-profit practice focused on residential and civic commissions. He provides much of Public Architecture's funding from his own pockets, making the “1%” time commitment he's asking from fellow architects seem minor by comparison.
verbatim what drew you to this path?
“We decided to enter an open competition [for a public project], but we looked at the competitions and thought the return on ... [them] was not good. So we had a simple, in many ways naive, idea: Why don't we take on a project in our own community? We selected a project ... and spent the next several months noodling over how to address it. The local planning department got wind of it and asked us to propose it to the staff. We did and got a good response. I went home thinking I'd like to do more. ... I woke up in the middle of the night and figured the way to move this forward was to create a nonprofit.”
what were you doing 10 years ago? “Ten years ago we moved the office out of the second bedroom of my apartment. There were three of us in an 11-foot-by-13-foot room. We [went] from that to having a real, legitimate office.”
what do you hope to have achieved 10 years from now? “I would like to believe we'll innovate to a degree we're unable to envision now. I'm more interested in innovation than in growth or in any other qualification you could dial up.”