Design for Social Change at CAF

The Chicago Architecture Foundation held a panel discussion, Design for Social Change, as a part of its ongoing series Architecture is Activism. Tuesday night's talk featured architects, activists, and designers from across the country, all of whom brought their stories and unique perspectives on how to “design for the public good.”

Sunny Fischer, current director of The Richard H. Dreihaus Foundation—an organization which promotes design and architecture to improve the urban environment—began the discussion with the story of her childhood. Growing up in public housing in the Bronx, NY, Sunny’s residential project was racially integrated, and large proportion of occupants held civil service jobs. The project’s library did more for Sunny than any educator she has since met. But this was New York, and decades ago.

What’s changed? Fast-forward to Chicago—and much of U.S. pubic housing in the 2000s—the perception of public housing is so drastically different. Why?

Exploring the question of “why?” was Roberta Feldman, Professor Emerita in the School of Architecture, University of Chicago. 

There is this perception, she said, that people don’t want to live in public housing; that if given the chance, they’d get out. After years of working with residents, many of whom have been threatened with the loss of their places, she’s convinced this most often isn’t the case. Feldman made an example of Chicago’s infamous Cabrini Green development. In the media, Cabrini Green was seen as an “unlivable place.” And many blame the residents. Yet what of the design? Additionally, there are mismanagement issues, problems with drugs and violence, but none of these issue negate the fact that these units are peoples homes. And that’s why most wanted to stay.

Feldman questions the city and national policy of tearing down such developments. She asked herself why, in this country, are we “tearing down affordable, public housing” when we're not replacing it with new units?

In LA, there is an emerging model that marries good design with social impact, and panelist Theresa Hwang is proving it.

Being an Enterprise Rose Fellow for the past three years, Theresa had imprinted herself into community organizations and non-profits in the LA area in order to infuse a design and architectural ethos, developing sustainable housing for the homeless population. She straddles the lines between architect and activist, working on these projects with the architects themselves.

Most promising to Theresa is the shift she’s seen in the field of architecture, from pedagogy of “Architecture as aesthetic” to “Architecture that functions.” More and more architects are realizing that good design can activate a community and influence experience—it’s no longer enough to design an appealing façade. To her, architecture is being redefined in this way.

Panelist Bryan Bell of Design Corps and the Public Interest Design Institute Bell took his discussion to the macro level. He claimed that in the past, architects have been guilty of doing not very much with a lot of resources at their call. To face current global challenges, the opposite is now true: they must do more with less. And the first step in this process is to listen. In fact, Bell reiterated Hwang’s point that the community needs to be involved in the planning and design of projects, a longstanding tenement of New Urbanism.

The agreement of the discussion was perhaps put best and put succinctly by panelist Sunny Fischer: “Everybody deserves good design.” The panel agreed that there is a critical mass of people, including architects and students, who demand better design and a better functioning of projects for the public good. The tides appear to be changing. It’s the architects and designers who now need to build for this change or risk being swept out to sea.



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