By Jack Stubbs
The days when architects solely drew up schematic designs and renderings for projects seem a thing of the past: public interest in architecture and design is reestablishing the architectural professional as a more socially, politically and environmentally aware 21st century practice that can have tangible impacts within the community.
In the Public Interest: Redefining the Architect’s Role and Responsibility, an exhibit at the Center for Architecture and Design in Seattle that opened on March 1st and runs through May 26th, showcases six innovative architectural practices across the world that redefine the way that the architect’s responsibility within the community is changing.
The exhibit is the result of AIA Seattle’s Emerging Professionals Travel Scholarship. The recipient of the scholarship in 2017 was Garrett Nelli—a designer at NAC Architecture who created the exhibit—who traveled to Los Angeles, New Orleans, rural Alabama, Haiti, Spain and Italy to explore how the built environment and the architectural professional can spur societal change.
One of the overarching goals of the exhibit is to prompt the wider community to begin to think differently about the architectural profession and the impacts that it can have on a deeper level, according to Nelli. “The exhibit starts with the idea and realization that the built environment and the city and structures around us inevitably have an impact on our individual and collective psyche,” he said. “There’s been a trend of creating buildings that have healthy interiors…but welfare we actually haven’t done as well with. We’re not addressing the ways that the built environment can impact people,” he said.
Specifically, the exhibit hopes to explore the evolving and changing nature of the architectural practice, investigate the evolving role of the architect within the community and examine the social impact that the architectural profession can have in the wider context. According to Nelli, the expertise that architects can bring extends beyond the design work that they typically produce. “Architecture firms are evolving what they do to help the public…maybe they are working with non-profits or writing grants for organizations…many people in the world might need architectural services, but might not need a building to be constructed just yet,” he said.
And according to Nelli, one of the challenges facing architects is the fact that the inward-facing profession has historically been closed off from the rest of the community due to the way that their projects are typically reviewed. “I think we’ve been very close minded about how we can bring other people into our traditionally closed loop of professional expertise,” he said. “With a lot of the projects out there, you only get one side of the story, whether from the architect, developer or contractor…but a town hall meeting probably isn’t the most effective way to get everyone’s input.”
To this end, the hope is that the exhibit acts as a conduit between architecture projects and the wider community. The six different project case studies are presented along with a space where members of the public in Seattle can engage with each project and write on a wall with questions or comments about each exhibit. Nelli hopes that the exhibit serves as a forum where individuals, public entities and private organizations can begin a dialogue. “I’m hoping to create an open dialogue about the role that design and buildings can play in our lives,” he said. The final component of the exhibit is a community outreach exhibit where Nelli hopes to connect city organizations and non-profits with the architectural profession. “I’m trying to create a platform for local non-profit organizations and give them the opportunity to share their visions and mission statements so that designers can see the fantastic things that organizations are doing here in Seattle.”
Further afield as well, the hope is that the exhibit sheds light on how other projects have positively impacted their surrounding communities. For example, Nelli travelled to Inner City Arts, an arts and education facility designed by Michael Maltzan Architecture and built in 2008: the exhibit is located on the edge of Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles and provides arts education for over 5,000 at-risk youths from LA public schools each year. Nelli also visited the GHESKIO Cholera Treatment Center in Haiti, a state-of-the-art complex completed in 2015 and designed by MASS Design Group. The majority of the project was undertaken by Haitian businesses and 360 local workers were employed during construction. In New Orleans, Nelli visited the St. Joseph Rebuild Center, a homeless care and support center—designed by Detroit Collaborative Design Center & Wayne Troyer Architects—that was built in 2007 in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Nelli also visited the 20K Homes Product Line project in Newbern, Alabama designed by Auburn University’s Rural Studio Program—the housing model addresses the systemic issues relating to the procurement of housing across the U.S., especially throughout the rural Southeast.
And although Nelli’s travels took him across the world as he explored the different projects, he hopes that the city of Seattle in particular can learn something about how to face imminent challenges. “Each exhibit is supposed to be an example of something that Seattle can take a little from and utilize and make people think how we can address these issues a bit differently here,” he said. “As the city continues to grow, we need to make sure that the spaces are growing in line with the local economy and giving opportunities to the local businesses.”
With all the rapid growth and densification occurring throughout Seattle, the challenge facing the city is how to grow while still maintaining its character. “We have large-scale issues about this ever-growing cityscape that is growing denser and denser, which poses the question of how we can grow sustainably and also hold on to what makes our neighborhoods great,” Nelli said.
In particular, Nelli highlighted affordable housing as an increasingly pertinent issue throughout the city—which will only become more severe if nothing concrete is done to confront the matter. “If we don’t begin the discussion now about how this city is growing—and this means implementing legislative codes and fighting for incentives for developers to include affordable housing—then our city won’t be diverse and equitable moving forward,” he said. Nelli thinks that looking ahead architects should be brought into the conversation earlier when it comes to balancing community needs with legislative priorities around housing and transportation. “When these decisions are being made, we can ensure that those who aren’t represented now can be represented [by those in the architecture community].”
And while the issues facing the city—namely rapid growth, housing affordability and transportation infrastructure—are daunting, it all begins by starting a conversation, which can be aided in part by the architecture community, according to Nelli. “These are really big issues that at first glance people might be overwhelmed by. But what the profession can begin to do is find these issues and find the things that they see needing to be changed, whether it’s affordable housing or transportation…we need to be sure that we’re putting ourselves out there.”
Nelli believes that, while there is no “perfect formula” for how to create this dialogue, it is important for architects to be involved in the local community and design process when it comes to addressing issues like housing affordability and transportation in Seattle. “If you’re constantly working with developers and politicians and the traditional people who have the money to fund and address these issues, and things aren’t changing, then the common denominator needs to be shifted,” he said.
Ultimately, the onus is on architects to step up to the plate. “At times, the architectural profession has been far too silent in stepping up and voicing opinions in what we think is right. I’m not sure if that’s because we’re afraid of losing clientele or because we’re afraid to rub people the wrong way,” he said. “But I would say that it’s important that we speak our mind. If we lose one client because we spoke our minds about something, the chances are that if it’s in the interest of the majority, you’ll gain two more clients,” he said.
At the end of the day, however, Nelli’s goals with the recently-opened exhibit extends beyond confines of one profession within the community. “Seattle is the perfect city for designers to really make a statement about how we can improve some of these underlying social, environmental and economic issues to show the rest of the country what that looks like,” he said. “The hope is that this exhibit can put a little fuel on the fire and to inspire people to get things done. Starting the dialogue that might not have been had before is really the loftiest goal.”