Redesigning a design education

Public interest design: described as the "next frontier" of both sustainability and architecture; an inclusive design approach that requires front end participation and contribution to the design from the user, often the local community at large, and considers the social and economic implications of how a design might affect the surrounding area.

Not that this should come as any surprise at all, but I'm having one of those moments where I am trying to figure out what exactly what I want to do with my life, and I blame much of that feeling on the "Design Futures" conference I attended at the end of May. The five day conference studied how the built environment has shaped racial, gender, and class dynamics and explored how design can help to break through the walls that we built in order to make our communities and other communities better place to live, work, and play. Attendees included a range of educational backgrounds, including illustration, economics, urban planning, engineering, architecture, and communication design, all from different parts of the country and world with various upbringings and histories. We spent the day in lectures and workshops and the early evenings in small group discussions, where we dove deeply into questions about privilege and discrimination, but the conversations continued well into the night and challenged us to adopt a mindset that infiltrated every aspect of our work. All of these discussions broadly covered different facets of public interest design, a noun that in the past ten years has entered common architectural lingo in school and the professional world, and in some places more than others. Public interest design demands a more socially and ethically responsible architecture; it's the next wave of sustainability, using a wide angle lens to see why environmental problems, public policy, and social constructs have shaped the way we occupy space. 

 At the root of many of our discussions during the conference was this manifesto: 

"As an architect, you are responsible for the built environment. The built environment has shaped communities, our vision of a community, and a community's vision of themselves. As designers we are responsible for the inequity of spaces, for racial and class tensions that permeate neighborhood boundaries. What are you going to do about it? How are you going to use design to change what our predecessors have created?" 

There seem to be two approaches to this question.

The first is the design approach, and requires that instead of making assumptions about what is right and best, you rigorously engage the community to reach a collective consensus on the ultimate design. This often manifests itself as participatory design meetings with users from the surrounding or affected area, to see what they want in the design and how the design can benefit them. Allow me to point out that this approach requires a serious questioning and understanding of the "community;" many designers use this phrase very nonchalantly, failing the recognize that their perception of the community is often incorrect and exclusive of a large group of people who will ultimately be affected by the design.  

The second approach comes only after recognizing that as an architect, you have some power, but not nearly as much power as the developer or policy maker, which is the guy behind the desk making a decision about the zoning that keeps certain types of homes in one areas and certain types in the next area. These people are the ones really calling the shots in the built environment, because they decide what gets built where and who can live there, and then they send off their building request to the architect, who in a moment of desperation looking for a design job, is most likely not going to question the ethical sense is building a neighborhood next to a nuclear power plant or at the bottom of a hill. This gap between the decision makers and the designers calls attention to the many problems in the built environment, including displacement, the affordable housing crisis, lack of access to healthcare facilities, the list can go on and on here. In order to really see through some of these radical changes that are necessary for the built environment to become a healthier and more inclusive place, we cannot only engage the community, after recognizing who the community really includes; we have to engage the developers, the patrons, the policy makers, the business owners, or better yet, we have to become them

So why blame the conference for my lost sense of place? I use blame very lightly here, because I'm actually very grateful for the way those five days have shaped my understanding of architecture and my future as a designer. The conference showed me that I can use a design degree to become a consultant, a politician, a sociologist, a developer; in fact, becoming a public interest designer demands that my architecture hat be one of multiple hats that I own, and that I wear all of these hats at one time. Truth be told, my architecture education has only prepared me for one version of what the architecture world looks like, yet because of the unique opportunities I have sought out, I have seen that there is more than meets the eye. I wish I had known and accepted at a younger point in my architecture curriculum that I could use my degree to become an urban planner + economics guru that fights for more equitable spaces in a residential and commercial spaces. When I was a sophomore, I took a professional concerns class that nearly scared me out of the major entirely; we spent hours talking about the road to licensure, a 5-7 year (on average) process expected of many architecture graduates as they enter the professional world, and requires a handful of tests and hours spent at a desk working on construction documents. It made me think that that was the only thing I could do with my degree, and that scared me. Since then, I have come to believe that an architecture major is absolutely one of the best educational decisions one can make, but it certainly comes with an array of challenges that demand a student not only to have endurance, but also to self reflect, self educate, and self motivate, especially in terms of determining a career path.

Sustainable design is now a given; you wouldn't design an interior gathering space with no shade, all glass, south facing, and not thinking about the effect it will have on your energy bills. Public interest design is the next frontier, as we use design to address big problems and small problems whose energy can be felt most strongly in the development of the built environment. In order to prepare designers for this next frontier, the analysis of both an ethical and carbon footprint, it is time that we seek a change in our education. No matter your chosen discipline, your worth, skills, and interests cannot be measured by your transcript and your resume, and your path after graduation is not determined by the degree that you hold. Transdisciplinary collaboration, the intimate collaboration between different practices areas to create the most appropriate solution, should not just start in the professional world to those lucky enough to find its benefit in professional practice. Instead, this collaboration should start in the classroom by encouraging design students to understand financial implications of material decisions and business students to see effective, profit-earning developments that bring people together. The practice of public interest design is not limited to a small sector of the design world, but it is a mindset that can and should be adopted by designers, engineers, businesses, illustrators, and developers. The built environment is at the forefront of many issues we grapple with day to day - issues of shelter and affordable housing, sexual orientation, maintenance of tradition and heritage, education, healthcare - and we have the power to change it only if we accept that our role as architects is larger than what an architecture education has taught us, and that in every businessman and psychologist there is also a little bit of architect. Until we advocate for changes in our education, the changes our world demands for survival and growth will be slow to come. 

I am so grateful to have had an experience that opened up my understanding on the design world, and this is only the beginning of the journey. People ask me what I will do after graduation - will I go into historic preservation, or will I design buildings? My question is, why does our conversation limit a designer's capability to such a narrow execution of our skill set, and what can the future of design really look like?   

Chesley McCartyComment