With the internet, all the information that we need for a design can be found online, yes? With the right software and training an individual designer can make a difference, championing the environment, fostering sustainability, and forging anew the zeitgeist of the day. Right? Even though our professions have enormous potential and responsibility, many of us realize that this latest cyber-version of the Fountainhead fantasy is a little overgrown.
Whatever our latest innovations, when architects embark on new projects we are confronted by old complexities and our own individual limitations. Development is neither confined to the boundaries of its site nor defined solely by the rules of formal composition, but is subject to a broad range of cultural, economic, and environmental forces. To integrate this complexity, much of the knowledge and leadership we need is found within other people, not on the internet. 98% of the workforce is not engineers or architects, and there are millions of others who are ‘merely’ residents or users of the places we create. Their expertise, their accumulated experiences in the built environment and their leadership are necessary for great work.
As an architect, I have had opportunity to learn these lessons the hard way. Once we had a great community project and we proceeded with care. We involved our consultants early. We had in-house design reviews. We met with city officials, diligently adjusted our submittal, and received their approval. Then came the city council vote and we lost. A generations old zoning designation would stand despite the recommendation of the planning commission. 100 units of affordable housing near a bike trail and a light rail station would not be built. What went wrong? Did the Mayor have it right when she stated that the site was unsuitable for affordable housing? Whether or not we agreed with her position, it was painfully clear that we developed the project within circles of professionals and forgot to engage the public at large. Community members, instead of being an opposition force, should have been incorporated as collaborators who could have offered guidance and support.
Are there barriers to free and open collaboration? Unfortunately, yes. Rather than from consensual understanding, our manner of reaching agreements has evolved from the pressure of the law: legal ordinances, public design reviews, community covenants, etc. They have a legitimate purpose and can be traced back to the first zoning statute that protected residents from the ill effects of industry. However, necessary as these tools are, they are usually reactive, enacted to prevent and to punish. They do not help us innovate or forge good community relationships.
Additionally, legal resolution of design issues has fostered an adversarial environment where meetings are seen as hurdles to overcome rather than opportunities to work together. I remember planning submissions that came back with redlines and critical comments, but no suggestions about possible solutions, and I have attended meetings with clients and the public at large that were entirely defensive in nature. How can this project IMPACT ME? What will this project do to MY PROPERTY? Of course, it is easy to say that it is not the lay public’s job to resolve conflicts and that civic authorities who propose solutions might lose their objectivity. While much of this is true, it can create an unfortunate cycle that precludes the sharing of knowledge and best practices. We propose, planners and the public respond, and then we disappear into our offices and make a new proposal. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. With one side finger-pointing and the other pushing ideas, it is easy to become mistrustful and lose the opportunity to use development as a universal positive for all.
Are there better ways to collaborate with the community and create great design? While the community design charrette has a good record, it is a sophisticated tool designed for large groups and high profile projects. It is not appropriate in all settings and we need to be proactive at every scale. Independent of any formal review process, we should seek out local expertise and most importantly, we should not see design as the only way to engage the community around us.
A key aspect of outreach is what we do outside of the studio. How we socialize and how we contribute to the community. I remember an undergraduate professor slamming us for drinking only with other architecture students. “If you only know other architects, you’re nothing!” he would sneer. That has proved prophetic, and much of my real learning over the years has come from the friendship of ‘others’: business consultants, teachers, and part-time actors moonlighting as data entry clerks for Goldman Sachs. There have also been organic farmers, social workers, musicians, nurses, and a man who repaired shoes. He knew more about sustainability than most lecturers that I have heard. If a tool would not fit in his shoebox, he would not use it. If a shoe needed to be re-soled, he could reinvent the look, feel and form of the shoe itself. Old Parts + New Parts = New Design. A clear example of adaptive reuse.
Contributing time to our communities also makes it easier for us to understand them. Volunteering in classrooms, both locally and abroad, I began to understand language barriers. Students who were perfectly capable of being bilingual were terrified of speaking English in public. Discussions with teachers revealed how much of the problem is related to culture and economics, and what roles (if any) design has in helping out. In a more direct example, as one of a group of Habitat for Humanity volunteers, we did post occupancy surveys of built houses and discovered that most families like open plans, as wide open as possible to accommodate the 16+ people who came for a Sunday afternoon dinner (in a 1200sf house!). This was demonstrated by one homeowner who rebuilt his kitchen to make it possible. What we learned from our residents became standard for HFH designs in Denver.
Ultimately, architects, planners, landscape architects, and engineers are only single players with finite resources. Progressive and forward looking development addresses all of the economic, cultural, and environmental issues as well as the tectonic and the artistic zeitgeist of the day. To make this fusion, we need leadership that is selfless, seeking out the knowledge and guidance of those who know as well as building relationships with all of those who will inhabit what we create.
As with all review and opinion pieces posted on Urban Omnibus, the views expressed are those of the author only and do not reflect the position of Urban Omnibus editorial staff or the Architectural League of New York.
Jack Conviser has worked as a licensed architect in Colorado, studied urban planning, and served in the US Peace Corps (Lesotho 2005-2007). He is also a Native New Yorker who has developed a passion for understanding the role of community engagement in design and urban issues, volunteering time with Architecture for Humanity and the Brooklyn Greenway Initiative.