Tuesday, January 2, 2007

Just another day at work...

We're just beginning our annual cycle of budget forecasting, and a couple of weeks ago, I sent our CFO a narrative of how my budget area would benefit our strategic goals. Today, he sent me an e-mail asking me to define a term that I used a couple of times -- "design citizenship." Here's my response:
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“Design citizenship” is a term that I guess I’ve coined, and I suppose that the appropriate thing for me to do is to write an academic paper about it and get it published so that it’s in the literature. However, I’ll spare you that for the short term and give you a quick idea of it.

Any act of physical design, from an office interior to a subdivision layout, has unseen implications for the lives of everyone who will encounter it. We can design with an eye toward social justice, toward universal design for persons of different abilities, toward sustainable material and energy practices, toward a sense of civic pride and community pleasure… or we can ignore those things and let them take care of themselves. A design attitude that understands and accepts responsibility for the numerous social outcomes of the work is what I would label design citizenship.

As with every act of citizenship, well-meaning people will disagree about both the desired outcomes and the means of achieving them. And that’s appropriate. What’s necessary is that we enter the arena, that we take social responsibility as a primary calling when we go about our work.

There are a few schools that have a focus on what is sometimes called “environment-behavior studies” or “social and cultural factors in design,” although they usually restrict that focus for academic research rather than integrating it into the entire curriculum. For instance, the grad school I went to – the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee – is one of the premier doctoral research institutions of environment-behavior research, which is my field. But the undergrads and M.Arch students had merely one required course, Architecture and Human Behavior, with few ways to extend that learning into their studio work and no subsequent elective classes that they could use to build an area of interest and expertise. This is also true at Michigan and Berkeley and Texas A&M and Kansas State and the Fashion Institute of Technology. And frankly, our field’s origins in environmental psychology have led us down some pretty uninspiring roads, focusing on individuals encountering places as though they were lab rats in a maze – Do they get lost? Are they comfortable? Do they have adequate privacy? These questions are both important and insufficient. I’m more interested in larger social questions. For instance, there’s a big body of research that shows the ways in which women are hindered through suburban design (and in design education as well). There’s a growing amount of research that I contribute to that demonstrates the ways that teenagers are demeaned and marginalized by the designs of their schools and communities.

So that’s my big agenda. We could be a leader in graduating students who take social responsibility as a baseline in every project they encounter; who are savvy about the research base that can inform their work; who know how to facilitate the design process so that clients, users and neighbors all feel respected and ennobled; and who know how to create buildings that can outlast our imagined uses and will be helpful for generations to come.
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I think about this stuff even when I'm doing things as mundane as budgets... I guess I'm compulsive.

9 comments:

Karrick said...

As the son of a Psychologist father, I have always taken a great interest in human behavior. My sophomore year at the University of Colorado I took a class called Society in Architecture which generally fits into this discussion. I loved it and was committed to engaging in the practices/ideals that take shape around the ideas taught in this class.
(Let me apologize in advance, sir, for playing the Devil’s Advocate, it may make me seem like a jerk, but I find it one of the tools in which I learn the most.)
A few years after I took this class I was at work in my first firm, working as a retail ‘roll-out designer’ for Finish Line shoe stores, I soon learned that the almighty dollar is much more interesting to the clients of architects than ‘design citizenship’ (as much as I/we might wish to adhere to it). This was only solidified a few years later working for a different firm whose primary user is the elderly and underprivileged. Unfortunately, the main providers of housing for this type of clientele are non-profit organizations. One of my first projects working for one of these non-profits was to design a prototype transitional housing facility (basically, a 100 unit halfway house). What better way to attempt to apply some of the ideals that I learned back in school? Who needs more sociological thoughtfulness put into the design of a facility than the homeless and rehabilitated? To make a long story short, by the time that the budget was applied, and then value engineered… most of the ‘design citizenship’ was disseminated to the shredder. I’m sure that this will be an underlying question of the semester, but how can we apply ‘design citizenship’ when the client’s user won’t pay for it, or can’t afford it? How can we sell green architecture when we’ve barely learned the lessons of Pruit Igoe - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pruitt-Igoe. Happy New Year!!! I’m looking forward to this class!!!

Herb Childress said...

Karrick, you raise a fascinating problem. I did lots of work in correctional design and school design, and one of the things I hated about it was that the problem was 97% solved by the time we were called. The State of California says that a classroom is 960 sf and the furniture manufacturers sell those dumb chairs with the writing tablets rivited on and the Department of Education says that the student:teacher ratio should be not less than 27:1 and pretty soon your school looks and acts just like every other damn school.

What this suggests for me is that the architect's role goes far beyond object design. We are social change agents, and AutoCad cannot be our only tool. We need to enter the policy and financial and research arenas in a major way.

Karrick said...

Ouch,... and to think when I was 18 and deciding what for and where to go to school,... I just wanted to make pretty things in the sky! Oh Crap! Frank Gehry for President?

Herb Childress said...

Now there's a terrifying thought! If he couldn't solve a problem by crumpling it up, it wouldn't get solved.

Kyle Basilius said...

I am thrilled we are going to study this subject! Hopefully we will tackle this and be able to take away new tools and techniques so we can sell this in the workplace. The best way to sell something to your client is to be armed with an arsenal of information, and to know that information inside and out.

I am liberal minded and also received a liberal driven education while in undergrad at Miami University. I care deeply about the environment, and also how through design we can make those inhabiting those structures' lives better.

The biggest struggles in our profession today are how to best present and persuade the client to adopt and trust your designs. They tend to not be design minded and a lot of times do not understand why we do the things we do. It is up to us to make it a concern of theirs to be socially and economically conscious about the buildings they have hired us to design for them. It is our job to come to them with the information backing us and to present it to them that it is in their best interest, and the best interest of the inhabitants of the structure, to enable deisign activisim (citizenship).

In particular we have tried to push the envelope of what a hospital looks like especially on the exterior...and while we present a modern and contemporary design, the client will come back with a request to have columns and make it look like an old georgian mansion. It is important to learn and understand how design impacts people and people’s lives. It is important, almost vital, to design buildings that heal, move, and affect the core of those who interact with it. If a building doesn’t do those things…what have we accomplished?

Joe B. said...

I have had the oppurtunity to work with two different types of clients. Those who thought they were architects and those who were only concerned with getting a great product for a next to nothing. It seems in both cases that the client already had a
pre-conceived notion of what they wanted, and the difficulty always was to reason with them and try to come up with a viable compromise in the design. I think part of the difficulty in the profession is that clients only see a building/structure and dont understand some of the underlying elements (enivronmental, social, etc.) that go along with a successful project - or they assume that the budget goes out the window....

rbutera said...

I think the challenge that we are looking at here is one of perception and eduction. Many many clients see architects as a necessary evil that is dictated to them by law (ie. building permits and architectural seals)

I think perhaps if we desire to implement design citizenship, we must also implent "design citizenship education".

~R

Karrick said...

Correct, it doesn't take a license or an education to be a client with expectations.

Herb Childress said...

Let's think like a client. I need something, and I think I know what it looks like. I'm not right, probably, but it's pretty easy to imply what a building would look like when I've seen lots of the same building type as part of my industry.

So your job as the architect is to disabuse me of my preconceived solution while at the same time helping me name my underlying problems, some of which I haven't even named for myself yet.

For instance, let's say I'm the hospital administrator who's seen your contemporary design and said "No, I want something that looks like Monticello." Why do I want that? Is it because I think my community wants a "civic building" in that traditional form? Is it because I know my local design review boards won't go for anything modern? Is it because my primary donors want a monument to their philanthropy? Is it because I had an art history class once and liked that form? You don't know, and I haven't thought about it before, but if you ask me, I can probably put words on that deeper requirement. Every "roadblock" is an unstated need waiting to emerge -- the better we do with programming, the earlier they'll appear.