Every two years the College of Fellows for the American Institute of Architects (AIA) awards the Latrobe Prize to fund a research project. The invitation’s language for the 2011 Latrobe Prize conveys a timely challenge to the profession:
“The 2011 Latrobe Prize jury seeks research that will help us understand and deal with the dramatic social, economic, environmental, and technological changes that have occurred in the wake of the Great Recession. . . Many of the assumptions that have long guided the field of architecture no longer seem relevant to the challenges we now face not only as a profession and discipline, but as a civilization. . . Nor can we assume that the practices that have guided architectural practice in the 20th century will serve us in the 21st.”
David Perkes partnered with Bryan Bell, Roberta Feldman and Sergio Palleroni to submit a proposal and was pleased to make the first cut and to be invited to meet with the Latrobe Prize selection jury. In David’s words:
When we met for the interview a seemingly skeptical jury member made an observation that proved to be emblematic of what we were to learn from the research. As he came to understand the day-to-day work of our team’s four practitioners he commented, “It seems to me that you are going to do this work whether you get the prize money or not.” I responded: “It not about the money. It’s about the prize,” explaining that the Latrobe Prize award from the AIA College of Fellows would not only bring the work of Public Interest Design to light; it would show the profession and the public that the AIA values community service work even when it does not follow conventional practice models.
Inspired by the innovation and commitment of the practitioners that we interviewed and encouraged by the support shown by the AIA in awarding the Latrobe Prize to research public interest practices we make the optimistic claim that public interest practices have a key role in the transformation of the architectural profession. These practices should not be seen as marginal but as a model squarely within the profession to transform practice to become more diverse and socially responsible.
The Latrobe research, “Public Interest Practices in Architecture,” investigates a wide range of practices that are working to overcome obstacles to doing work that meets community needs more directly than conventional, client-driven practices. The Latrobe research team interviewed over one hundred practitioners and fifty of their community partners. The interviews were typically over an hour long and provide detailed accounts of the motivations and operations of a wide range of practices. The overarching tone from the interviews is determination, which is well stated in the words of Gail Vittori from the Center for Maximum Potential in Building:
You used every mechanism that was possibly available to you to keep doing what you’re doing.
Public Interest Practitioners work at overcoming the obstacles that get in the way of meeting needs. Some of these obstacles are inherent in architectural practice. Others have a more basic cause from the limitations of market-driven development. In some way all of the obstacles stem from the uneven distribution of power, wealth, risk, information, opportunities, etc. The mechanisms to overcome these obstacles are as numerous and varied as the situations and innovation of those doing the work. Public Interest Practitioners tend to be pragmatists; creatively using strategies to solve problems that often push the boundaries of conventional practice. Nevertheless, irrespective of their varied methods and business models, they draw on typical strategies. Therefore, even with the variety of methods, the way that Public Interest Practitioners address challenges and needs in the community can be summarized in the following:
1. CONFRONTING COMPLEX PROBLEMS
The type of complex problems addressed by Public Interest Design requires expanding disciplinary and professional boundaries.
2. THE UNDERSERVED PUBLIC
Effective community engagement is built on respect for the local cultural and material context and on a commitment to the people of the community. Community engagement stems from both a value of social justice and from a strategy to achieve better results.
3. WORKING WITH MULTIPLE STAKEHOLDERS
Contemporary public issues involve many stakeholders that shape a project and can benefit from effective leadership.
4. CREATING AND SUSTAINING PARTNERSHIPS
Partnerships that make up successful Public Interest Design practices come from collaborative practice methods.
Public Interest Practitioners educate design professionals and other stakeholders, students and the general public about design needs and opportunities.
Public Interest Practitioners often work to advocate for the community.
7. MAKING A LIVING AND DOING GOOD
Public Interest Design practices apply adaptive and varied business models