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Design that Does Good Best


ScrapHouse, a green demonstration home designed in 2005 by the nonprofit firm Public Architecture, was built entirely from salvaged materials. The structure, which features a wall made of old phone books stacked vertically, challenged the public to think differently about the standard single-family home.

In the nonprofit world, the word ‘do-gooder’ is a loaded term. It can refer to someone with good intentions who wants to help the underserved. But it also carries a stigma – that of an outsider parachuting into an unfamiliar place, imposing solutions and then disappearing just as quickly as he or she arrived.

This year in a new Architecture studio called Positions + Practice, RISD students explored the cultural, social and design history of humanitarian interventions by wealthy societies into poor ones. Part critical theory and part case-study analysis, the course allowed students to examine both the successes and pitfalls of humanitarian design, with an eye to understanding how to turn ‘do-gooder’ architecture into architecture that truly does good.

“Given the intense, growing interest among students and faculty to engage in projects that reach out to larger communities in a way that somehow does good, the question is: Can we assemble a history of this kind of work that will help us think about it in a much more critical way?” notes Associate Professor of Architecture Lynnette Widder. Because the topic demands the lens of history and critical theory as a means of better understanding how to approach these kinds of design projects, she opted to co-teach the studio with Assistant Professor of the History of Art + Visual Culture Ijlal Muzaffar.

“The idea is that when students set out to do this kind of work themselves, they can start to ask the important questions,” Widder says. “Who are the stakeholders? What are the local conditions? How can I know these people? And how do I not make this a one-off project, but think about it as a longer-term engagement?”

Examining the architect’s role
The fall 2011 studio culminated in Locating Positions and Practice: Here, There, How, a conference that enabled students to hear from design leaders working at the forefront of civic engagement. Participants included two RISD alumni:Ahti Westpahl BArch 04, who has played a leading role in designing a national park system in the Cambodian rainforest, and John Peterson BArch 90, founder of the nonprofit multidisciplinary design firm Public Architecture.

After establishing a high-end private practice in San Francisco, Peterson told the audience he found himself asking questions he never had before: Whom does architecture serve? And whom should it serve?

“The percentage of the population we as architects serve is somewhere around 10 percent,” Peterson noted in recalling his decision to launch Public Architecture in 2002. “I don’t know what the exact figure is, but we all probably know in our heart of hearts that it’s a pretty small percentage of the population. [Public Architecture’s] interest is really in the 90 percent” of the general public that is either oblivious to the role of architecture in their lives or unable to afford to hire an architect.

“I can fill this room with healthcare architects and ask them to name the number 1 and number 2 healthcare providers in the world, and they can’t tell me, because those providers have never been clients,” Peterson continued as he spoke about Public Architecture’s work in seven Bolivia clinics run by one of those top providers, Planned Parenthood. “We’ve never shown them that the work we do matters enough to pay for it. These are not easy clients . . . but we have to show them that design is a real tool that furthers their mission.”

Artist and urban designer Damon Rich, who also participated in the conference, described the nontraditional but intuitive roles architects and designers can play in a community, including being “cheerleaders of local democracy.” As the urban designer and waterfront planner for Newark, NJ, he has spearheaded a multiyear project to radically transform Newark’s riverfront.

“Even though I love architecture and I think it’s so great and so fascinating, for me it’s been a process of learning that I should not treat it like some kind of goodie that I can offer to the public, saying ‘Look at how lucky you are that I gave this to you,'” he noted. Instead, he said, architects should be one constituency among many that cares deeply about the built environment and is willing “to create unexpected coalitions between these people to make not only better, more just designs, but also more interesting ones.”

The wide-ranging studio, which attracted students from Industrial Design, Graphic Design and Textiles as well as Architecture, explored everything from African post-colonial theory to The Adventures of Tintin comic books to politically charged public projects by Polish artist Krzysztof Wodiczko.

“There was an incredible range of precedents that the students could identify with that offered different perspectives on all that can go wrong, not just with a particular design project but really with the way the idea for a project is put together, with all the flaws and blind spots,” Widder says. “One of the important things that a RISD education is about is not just finding answers to questions, but thinking about the framing of a question. In integrating a studio course with critical theory, we wanted students to think about these questions in a much deeper way.”

related links:
portion of video from the Locating Positions and Practice conference
Public Architecture

tags: Architecture, alumni, faculty, interdisciplinary, History of Art + Visual Culture, public engagement, research, students

RISD has a long history of offering Saturday and after-school classes for children and teens, as this photo from c. 1910 confirms.