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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
the topic demands the lens of history and critical theory as a means of better
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
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
“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
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.”
portion of video from the Locating Positions and Practice conference
, History of Art + Visual Culture
, public engagement