GCCDS is Hiring!

The design studio plans to hire two public design interns and one community planner.  Applicants must apply online at www.jobs.msstate.edu.  The design studio’s work has evolved from rebuilding to long-term resiliency and is recognized as a national leader in public interest practice.  In 2010 the design studio created the Public Design Certificate to provide a program for interns to work on a range of community-based design projects and to get graduate level course credits for study and research in public interest design.    For more information on the Gulf Coast Community Design Studio visit gccds.org.

Community Planner

The Gulf Coast Community Design Studio is seeking qualified applicants for a Community Planner to work in Biloxi, Mississippi on planning and urban design projects.  The work ranges from regional planning to neighborhood-scale urban design.  All the projects work with community partners and include a variety of outreach and education efforts.  The essential duties and responsibilities include planning and designing projects at a range of scales, using GIS mapping and planning tools, organizing and participating in community meetings, and supervising the work of interns.  The qualifications are a professional degree in urban planning, urban design, or architecture and five years of planning or architecture experience.

GCCDS Public Design Intern

The Public Design Certificate program combines work experience with research and study in community-based design practice.   The qualifications are a degree in architecture, landscape architecture, urban planning, or urban design.  The Public Design interns work on a range of community design projects for three-quarters of the time and receive graduate level course credit for research and study for one-quarter of the time.  Interns work under the direction of Gulf Coast Community Design Studio professional staff and have many opportunities to engage in the community and work with various partner organizations.  The intern period is at least one year and can be planned for up to two years.  The aim of the program is for emerging design professionals to develop practical and leadership skills along with an understanding of public interest design.

Welcome Sarah and Adrine!

The GCCDS has hired two new employees!

Sarah Grider, our most recent Public Design Intern, started with us at the beginning of January.  She recently graduated from Mississippi State University with a Bachelor of Architecture.  As a student, Sarah worked at the Small Town Center in Starkville, Mississippi.  She brings her experiences in community service, academic research, and professional design.  Welcome, Sarah!

We hired Adrine Arakelian in February as our newest Intern Landscape Architect.  Prior to joining the GCCDS team, Adrine worked with the National Park Service, Treepeople, the Atelier Jean Nouvel in Paris, France, and the Los Angeles County Department of Regional Planning.  Her experiences in both planning and landscape architecture make her a great addition to our team.  Welcome, Adrine!

It’s time for us to elaborate on “public design.”

We use the term “public design” as an inclusive label that points to the past as well as the future.  It aims to respect and sustain the heroic work of socially progressive designers of the past, and at the same time, it names what appears to be an emerging new force in contemporary practice.  Similar terms such as: community design, community-based design, community-driven design, and the newest term: public-interest design, communicate an aspiration for designers to be responsible to society.  We like the fact that both words of the term “public design” are imprecise to welcome a broad range of current practices and leave room for future inventions and reinventions. Nevertheless, even though the term is intended to include diverse activities, we believe that there are several qualifications for a practice to be called “public.”  First, the practice has a mission that is driven by service more than profit.  Second, the practice is able to provide design to groups that do not fit the standard definition of a client.  And third, the practice uses various activities to address issues that are relevant to the general public.

The term “public design” is also used to associate with other professions that have a public segment, such as law and medicine, in an attempt to make progress in design as we learn from other practices.  Technical progress in design advances naturally as material science and product development inform the design and construction of structures and landscapes.  Such progress is built into the building industry because technology is already driven by market forces and does not require changes in the way we practice.  However, social progress in design does not happen without effort. Changes in the social forms of practice are less apparent, in part because defining and measuring social progress is not yet institutionalized to the degree of technical progress, as evidenced by the popularity of LEED and the relatively unknown status of SEED**. Nevertheless, if we want to move practice forward we should be able to define social progress and consider the effectiveness of a practice accordingly.

A comparative view of progress in health care offers a way to look at progress in design practice. In health care, technical progress can be seen as advancements in the tools, procedures, and treatments that help people get well more effectively.  Social progress can be seen as improvements in access to health care and as an increase in preventive activities among the population, to reduce health problems. In short, progress is being made if more people get the care they need and if fewer people need medical treatment to begin with. We might ask: can the definition of social progress in health care inform a definition of social progress in design practice? Can we define progress similarly, as increasing people’s access to design and reducing problems of the general population resulting from deficient physical settings?

A public design practice is shaped by such questions about social progress.  Efforts to achieve social progress are often framed by a critique of traditional client-driven practice methods.  A public design practice strives to overcome the limitations of the traditional relationship between an architect and a client.  This traditional relationship is built on a fee for professional services, which means that access to design is limited to those who can afford it. It is impossible to significantly increase public access to design if each additional person is expected to be a client who can pay for design services. Likewise, preventive public design to address problems of the physical environment would take a rare client, one who was willing to pay for work beyond the self-interests of their project and to take responsibility for problems beyond their control.  Overcoming the limitations of client-driven practice motivates public design practitioners and results in a range of innovative methods found in various public design practices.  At the same time, sustaining a public design practice when the funding source is not a traditional client requires an alternative business model.

The Gulf Coast Community Design Studio has now been in practice long enough to be self-conscious of our own evolution.   We are aware that our name continues the tradition of place-based, community design work, though we wonder if we should replace “community” with “public.”  For the past year, our own work has been energized a new tool: the public design certificate program.  This program is changing our practice because we are becoming more reflexive.  The interns that commit to a year in the program are looking to learn from the work we (they) are doing.  We are also more conscious of how our local work has become part of the national landscape.  With each semester, when we add one or two public design interns, we get a larger number of applications.  We are currently accepting applications for two new interns and have received over 90 applications so far.  For those that have applied, this number may be daunting – though we hope it will not discourage their dedication to public practice.  But for those of us that are committed to service-oriented practices, seeing the increasing demand for public design experience is very encouraging and a good indication that the design professions are going through a positive transformation.

We are living in a time when well-founded encouragement is certainly needed.

–David Perkes, Director of the Gulf Coast Community Design Studio

East Biloxi residents

**LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, is a green-building certification system designed to provide building owners and operators with a framework for identifying and implementing practical and measurable green building design, construction, operations and maintenance solutions. SEED (Social Economic Environmental Design) is a network and certification process to guide professionals toward community-based engagement within design practice.

Some Thoughts from a Public Design Intern

Lately some folks at the studio have been giving a lot of thought to equity.  Specifically, we’re thinking about equity in the design world and how it’s put into practice.  A big question that we’re thinking about is What would equity look like in… Construction?  Housing?  Community Planning?  Regional Planning?  Environmental Restoration?

These conversations have helped me realize the value of the outcomes that the GCCDS strives for.  It’s nice to work in an environment where, in some ways, I can take equity for granted. (We need to design a pedestrian bridge?  Well, of course it’s going to be accessible.)  But I’m beginning to realize that might not be the case in all firms.  How often do designers complete projects without considering how their designs might affect the neighbors or the community?  How often do they miss opportunities to provide public space or to work for under-served populations?

Now, I’m not saying we at the GCCDS design all of our projects to perfection — part of the reason there’s been so much discussion about equity is because we’re looking for opportunities to improve the quality of our work.  What I am saying is that the GCCDS has staff here who genuinely care about quality and equity in our design work, and that in turn creates a great atmosphere in which to develop one’s professional skills.  The research and thinking that we’ve been doing about equity issues has also taught me that we’re not alone.  There are many professionals out there who are working towards a more equal society.  And I must say, I’m happy to be a part of the effort.

Seminar Review: To what moral standards should we hold designers?

This week’s seminar reading included chapters 19 and 20 from Eric J. Cesal’s Down Detour Rd.: An Architect in Search of Practice and “Is Humanitarian Design the New Imperialism?” by Bruce Nussbaum.

The two chapters from Cesal– “How to Become a Famous Architect” and “The Citizen Architect”– examine what it means to be a “citizen architect.”  The former chapter criticizes so-called famous architects, who design buildings to be used in post-disaster situations without paying due attention to the recovering community’s on-the-ground needs.  He concludes this chapter with: “I worked with men and women who would likely never be on the cover of the New York Times.  Men and women who did not aspire to make a statement, or ‘a weird metal thing… that doesn’t look like a house.’  Men and women who merely desired to use their skills to answer that basic human call of service” (Cesal 188).

Chapter 20 outlines Cesal’s views about architecture’s role in solving problems, “beyond those relevant to architects themselves, their paying clients, or those who track Herman’s ‘high’ architecture” (191).  While some contemporary architects suggest the profession turn its attention to broader social concerns, Cesal argues that all architects should concern themselves and their designs with broader social issues.  He then argues that addressing social concerns through architecture will give the profession more power.

Nussbaum’s article takes a more critical look at citizen architecture, which he refers to as humanitarian design.  He examines a question that I think haunts many non-profit designers: Are we being as sensitive as we need to be to the people we’re supposedly helping?  He refers to international projects in which western designers focus their work in non-western countries, asking “Are designers helping the ‘Little Brown Brothers?’  Are designers the new anthropologists or missionaries, come to poke into village life, ‘understand’ it and make it better–their ‘modern’ way?”   He asks, “Might Indian, Brazilian and African designers have important design lessons to teach Western designers?”

Naturally, these readings sparked some lively discussion.  In response to Cesal, we eventually boiled it down to a basic question:  what can architects actually do to promote a more socially responsible agenda in their projects?  Cesal has grand visions for how an architect should behave, but in the actual practice of architecture it can be difficult to keep social responsibility as high a priority as we might like it to be.  And if the client isn’t particularly interested in social responsibility, what then?  Should architects refuse to be the designers on irresponsible buildings?  Should they go ahead with the project, regardless of what final decisions were made?  Of course, the answers to these questions are incredibly personal and can vary widely based on each situation; however, we want to know what tools architects have when their ethical standards conflict with their projects.  Other than quitting a job, what can an architect do?  And even then, is quitting a realistic option for most designers?  We certainly have no (or very little) legal support in the realm of ethical design.  So what then?

In response to Nussbaum, we agreed that participating in humanitarian design is especially challenging because of the sometimes huge cultural differences that can exist between designers and users, but we also speculated that those challenges could be addressed with some careful planning.  For example, most people who work for the Design Studio didn’t actually grow up in South Mississippi.  In fact, none of us did.  We came here to fulfill a need after Hurricane Katrina.  Are there similar needs in the rest of the U.S.?  Absolutely.  The Gulf Coast just happens to be where we decided to focus our efforts.  And in doing so, I believe we overcame one of the main challenges of humanitarian design: by focusing our attention on this region the studio has been able to earn credibility, to become a real, meaningful part of the community.

And in response to Nussbaum’s question Might Indian, Brazilian and African designers have important design lessons to teach Western designers? we reply, “YES!”  In fact, many of the people who work at the studio spent time in other countries for the purpose of learning how non-western societies design and build.  Less drastic but just as important, upon moving to South Mississippi all of us learned (and are still learning) how things are done here.  Those of us in the Public Design Internship Program came to Mississippi to do exactly that– we’re here to learn.  And if we can serve the community while we’re here, the more the better.

Seminar Review: Community Meetings and Deliberate Planning

Once a week GCCDS staff meet for an evening seminar as part of the Public Design Internship program. A reading is typically selected prior to meeting. This reading selection helps to guide a discussion that focuses on various aspects of public interest design and the work of GCCDS.

Most recently, two short readings were selected. The first was from Last Harvest by Witold Rybczynski (partial preview here, chapter 8 “Meetings” and chapter 10 “More Meetings”). The second was “Caveat Venditor” by Jerome Daksiewicz.

Last Harvest documents the story of New Daleville, a Traditional Neighborhood Development subdivision built just before the housing collapse. The selected chapters describe public meetings held in the early phase of the project. “Caveat Venditor” is an autobiographical account of an unemployed architect with a mortgage in the post-housing collapse who chooses to strategically foreclose while discussing the legal, financial and ethical implications.

Attending and participating in community meetings is a common part of public design work. Community meetings are important tools for informing the public, creating effective collaboration, and presenting ideas and possible outcomes, among other things. They are also an important educational tool for public design interns in terms of both attendance/participation as well as learning from coworkers with broader experience. One of the biggest lessons from this week’s seminar is that once people begin to work collectively, attitudes begin to change. Well-informed members of the community will be more likely to actively, and accurately, participate in discussion and collaboration. An open design and decision-making process is more likely to include the interests of the community, and be viewed favorably as a result. Attitudes of the community may change as a result of participation, and attitudes of the designers may change to reflect perspectives and ideas realized during meetings.

Many discussions during the weekly seminar expand to include large-picture ideas, philosophy and current events. The second reading was a reminder of the short-sightedness associated with the housing market collapse of recent years. Discussing and understanding the realities of this problem can be overwhelming but they help relate the importance of a methodical and inclusive design and planning process. One example of such a process that came up during the discussion is the creation of the Renaissance Builder & Developer Guild Development Standards. Some proposals  were not accepted as part of this building program, despite the support of public officials. Such projects did not meet enough of the standards founded on equity, intelligent design and sustainable principles. This illustrates how putting community needs and careful design above short-term profit is not always common practice, and suggests how this lack of foresight may lead to bigger problems in the future.

The weekly seminar is a valuable tool for the public design interns and other GCCDS staff as it serves as an additional version of the continuing education process that is a part of the design profession. Furthermore, the seminar provides an opportunity for staff to further discuss aspects of current projects and for newer staff to learn the lessons and experiences of more experienced staff.

Public Design Intern Program

The Public Design Intern Program is one year old and we’ve been working on a variety of projects since its inception. Public Design Interns have professional degrees in architecture, landscape architecture or planning, and are hired as staff at the GCCDS. Interns spend 75% of their time working alongside fulltime staff and the other 25% working on coursework, including more exploratory studio projects as well as evening seminars and visits from outside professionals. At the conclusion of the yearlong program, interns receive a graduate certificate in Public Design from the College of Art, Architecture + Design at Mississippi State University. Two new intern positions will be hired for the Spring 2012 semester. Here’s a look at some of the projects that the current interns have been working on:

Howard Avenue Streetscape

This project comprises a streetscape improvement and preliminary development plan for historic downtown Biloxi, which together aim to improve the city’s central public space and enliven the district with increased traffic and civic activity, fostering a sense of downtown identity. Initial proposals include opening Vieux Marche to two-way traffic and re-establishing Howard Avenue as the primary downtown thoroughfare. The project also introduces a more streamlined streetscape that includes parking, street trees, stormwater management, street lights, pedestrian bulbs, awnings, crosswalks and ample sidewalk space.

Port Road Community Engagement

This project entailed research and design work focused on the potential impacts of an impending port expansion and new port connector road in Gulfport, MS. We have worked with a number of local community groups in an effort to research likely externalities of expansion and visualize the proposed road as it affects adjacent neighborhoods. Primary accomplishments so far include extensive mapping of the proposed road and surrounding communities, research regarding environmental and public health impacts, and a precedent study of roadway design interventions.

Vacant Land Study

The vacant land study is just beginning and comprises an investigation of vacant property in East Biloxi. The project aims to develop a vacant land reuse plan for East Biloxi, including land typology, proposed programs, policy recommendations, and implementation strategies that highlight the various roles of public, private and community stakeholders.