Dignity by Design: The Social Art of Architecture – Hobart and William Smith Colleges \
The HWS Update

Dignity by Design: The Social Art of Architecture

John Cary, a national leader in the growing field of public-interest design, will be a featured Engaged Citizenship Speaker at the Colleges on Wednesday, Oct. 21. Jointly hosted by the Center for Community Engagement and Service Learning (CCESL) and the Department of Art and Architecture, this is the first talk of the year in a series that is meant to “Highlight what engaged citizenship looks like and make it more tangible for students,” says Katie Flowers, associate director of CCESL. Cary’s lecture will take place at 7 p.m., in the Sanford Room. 

Kirin Makker, assistant professor of architectural studies notes, “Architecture and planning have the power to positively or negatively affect peoples’ lives; our job as teachers of design is to help students understand this and, hopefully, challenge them to think about design as a means of giving back to their communities in helpful ways.”

Public Architecture was started with the premise that design is presently the privilege of a few, rather than a fundamental right of all people. There is, however, much reason for hope, according to the organization. Within the architecture and design professions, a public-interest design movement is visibly taking hold. Humanitarian, community, and pro bono design are gaining relevance as legitimate and desirable forms of public-interet practice.

“We all share the built environment. Our students, whether or not they become architects, will always be in a position to think critically about how housing can be improved, public buildings can build community, and public spaces can function better and be more beautiful,” says Makker.

Cary’s presentation will focus on the scalability of pro bono design, a case study in leverage being tested through “The 1% program” of Public Architecture. To date, The 1% program has attracted more than 650 architecture and design firms nationwide to pledge a minimum of one percent of their billable hours-totaling an estimated 250,000 and $25 million in pro bono services annually. Yet, after its more than 150-year history, there is also well-founded skepticism that the architecture profession as currently constructed will ever evolve to serve the public at any real scale, according to Cary.

As leading educator Thomas Fisher wrote in his foreword to “Expanding Architecture: Design as Activism,” “We need a career path, and possibly even a profession, of public-interest architecture, parallel to public health and public defense, that has its own educational requirements, practice models, financial support, and client base.” Accordingly, Cary’s presentation will outline precedents and scenarios for the development of these crucial new models to address our nation’s most pressing challenges.

Cary and Makker are professional colleagues who collaborated on projects in the past. Cary became the executive director of Public Architecture in October 2003, taking the organization from an ambitious mission statement to the leading advocate for pro bono and public-interest design. In 2006, at 29, Cary became the youngest person ever recognized as a Senior Fellow of the Design Futures Council, alongside nine building industry and environmental leaders including Nobel Laureate and Former Vice President Al Gore, Nobel Laureate and Energy Secretary Steven Chu. A Fellow of the American Academy in Rome, Cary was a 2008 recipient of the Rome Prize fellowship. In January, Cary was recognized alongside John Peterson, founder and president of Public Architecture, with the 2009 Designer of the Year Award from Contract Magazine, a 30 year-old honor previously conferred on the likes of Shigeru Ban and Michael Graves.

This past summer, he held the Public Affairs Practitioner Residency at the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center on Lake Como in Northern Italy, where he began work on a forthcoming book on pro bono design, to be published by Metropolis Books / Distributed Art Publishers in 2010. “Dignity by Design: The Social Art of Architecture,” is the title of Cary’s talk and the working title for the book. Cary earned his bachelor of arts in architecture, summa cum laude, from the University of Minnesota and master of architecture from UC Berkeley.

According to Makker, speakers such as Cary “Infuse architecture with an ethic of outreach and social responsibility.” She plans to bring at least one speaker per year to HWS through the engaged citizenship lecture series. She also hopes to expand the architecture program’s studio courses by adding projects such as small scale design building which will allow architecture students to leave their legacy in the Geneva Community.

The image above is a rendering of Public Architecture’s Day Labor Station by Francesco Fanfani.