The Next Chapter for Public Interest Design

This editorial appeared in the March 2015 issue of Contract magazine. To read the digital edition, click here.

When I was in architecture school in the 1990s, the celebrated architects and designers were either tried and true Modernists or trendy Postmodernists tinkering with forms. But the focus was primarily aesthetic, as design for social good—which had been an original Modernist ideal—had been largely pushed aside. We admired object buildings and architects as heroes in the vein of Howard Roark.

But that changed this century. A young designer at Gensler, Cameron Sinclair, organized a design competition for shelters in Kosovo in 1999, and that was the start of Architecture for Humanity (AfH). Under the leadership of Sinclair and Kate Stohr, AfH coordinated design solutions for communities in need after natural disasters or humanitarian crises. That work was in a range of places, including Sri Lanka, following the 2004 tsunami; Haiti, after the earthquake that struck in 2010; Japan, in response to the 2011 earthquake and tsunami; the Gulf Coast, after Hurricane Katrina; and the New Jersey shore, hard hit after Hurricane Sandy. The organization grew, and eventually had more than 60 chapters in 25 countries and volunteers worldwide.

AfH changed perceptions of what architects and designers can accomplish in terms of design for the public good in global locations, and Sinclair coined the catchphrase “Design Like You Give a Damn.” Many supporters and young designers proudly affiliated themselves with and supported AfH because the essence of AfH conveyed the highest aspirations for architects and designers.

So, like many people in the architecture and design community, I was saddened with the news in January that AfH was closing. I was aware since 2013 that the organization was experiencing significant challenges, but the closing was unexpected.

AfH established a benchmark and grew as not just an organization but as a movement. It was exciting to see the work of Sinclair and his colleagues, contemporaries of mine, as a new field of public interest design emerged this century. That work was led by Gen X designers (who said we are all slackers?) who wanted to accomplish great things utilizing design skills with a strong sense of purpose.

While AfH has closed, we know this: The field of public interest design is now established and robust. As we see in social media posts since the announced closing, many people worldwide are passionate about this work and will carry the torch and persevere with the good work that architects and designers can do to assist communities in need. The Public Interest Design Institute provides training to architecture and other design professionals in public interest design, and the University of Minnesota has recently begun offering a certificate in public interest design.

The Contract 2012 Designer of the Year MASS Design Group continues to grow and produce excellent projects that have significant social impact in places like Rwanda, Haiti, and other countries. Public Architecture, led by the Contract 2009 Designer of the Year John Peterson, identifies a variety of problems that require innovative research and design solutions.

Contract will seek out excellent work in public interest design and advocate for it as an important, necessary component of a relevant architecture and design profession. In fact, in this issue, we are pleased to publish an outstanding example of a new generation of public interest design, the El Guadual Early Childhood Development Center conceived by two young designers in Colombia.

Focusing on public interest design, Contract will be producing the seventh annual Inspirations Awards to specifically honor architecture and design that benefits the public good. Sponsored by Tandus Centiva and presented by Contract, the awards recognize a commitment to social responsibility in commercial interiors, using design to improve the quality of life for a worthy cause. The winning clients will receive generous grants from award sponsor Tandus Centiva, the winning designers will be honored in a ceremony at NeoCon® in Chicago this June, and the winning projects will be published in Contract. The deadline for entries is April 17. Visit inspirations.contractdesign.com to learn more and to enter your work.

We all look forward to continuing to support public interest design, and with so many passionate designers, I expect that we will see exciting new organizations and initiatives that will develop from the end of AfH. Perhaps the 15-year history of AfH is only the first chapter of public interest design as we will come to know it as well as the broader role of architects and designers in the 21st century.

Sincerely,

John Czarnecki, Assoc. AIA, Hon. IIDA
Editor in Chief