I just read this article by John King in the San Francisco Chronicle called “Architect John Peterson building goodwill.”
Public Architecture has five employees. The spacious loft it shares with four other businesses is upstairs from a fetish-gear boutique.
But if the firm’s size and location are humble, its ideas are big - and one of them is beginning to transform the architectural profession.
“There’s a great desire among architects to do work that’s socially relevant,” says John Peterson. “We’re talking about improving public life for everybody.”
Peterson is founder of Public Architecture, a 5-year-old nonprofit in San Francisco best known for its Scraphouse - an inhabitable structure that stood for four days in 2005 across from City Hall and included walls made of computer keyboards and old telephone books. But the firm’s larger impact involves a different sort of vision: to turn the concept of pro bono work into an industry norm.
Begun in 2005, the program dubbed the 1% Solution aims at getting architectural firms to contribute 1 percent of their billable hours annually to socially responsible initiatives. In other words, making it standard practice to allocate time and staff to do the right thing.
Yes, architects have embraced worthy causes in the past. But 1% Solution’s blueprint for ongoing commitment is more in line with the legal industry, where the American Bar Association for decades has emphasized the importance of pro bono efforts.
The results so far are heartening. As of January, 290 firms in 35 states have pledged to take part. And Public Architecture isn’t just trying to guilt-trip its peers. The firm also has assembled a database of nonprofit organizations with specific needs that a design firm can address, whether it’s a full building renovation or focused interior design.
“The brilliant component of this was the linkage - a systematic network to match experience with need,” says R.K. Stewart. An associate principal in the San Francisco office of Perkins + Will, Stewart last year was president of the American Institute of Architects. The AIA recently awarded Public Architecture a $115,000 grant to expand its 1 percent effort.
“We started fishing around for organizations that do things like this (in architecture) and couldn’t find any,” Peterson recalls. “I have sporadic sleep habits, and one time when I was up in the middle of the night I thought, ‘This is worth taking on.’ “
If methodical pro bono work does become part of the architectural persona - along with hip eyeglasses and a tendency toward words like “porosity” - then Peterson is an unlikely instigator.
Peterson, 44, arrived here in 1991 with his “better half,” landscape architect Carol Souza: “She was ready to get out of Cambridge (Massachusetts), I said sure, and we drove west looking for a place to light.” They arrived in the Bay Area, liked it and found a way to stay.
Peterson set up Peterson Architects, specializing in private homes. But when he designed a project across from the Glen Park BART station with housing, a library, supermarket and sleek contemporary design, neighbors balked at the modern look. The project ended up in another office that rolled out the more traditional building that opened last year.
Instead of making Peterson bitter, the fuss lit a spark.
“I found it engaging … it broadened our thinking about who our ‘client’ was,” Peterson recalls. “I was exposed to my own limitations at how I present my architectural ideas, but we also started thinking about all these people we never meet.”
So Peterson’s staff looked for ways to connect with everyday people and found a cause close at hand. Their office is on a stretch of Folsom Street that offers six lanes of asphalt but precious little in the way of amenities for neighborhood workers and residents. The firm whipped up conceptual schemes to replace some of the blacktop with landscaped oases; the idea was a hit, and the first small plaza should be constructed this fall outside the BrainWash Cafe/Laundromat.
There’s also talk with several municipalities about building shelters for day laborers who line streets looking for work. As for the Scraphouse, a wry critique of the culture of disposability, it lives on in a documentary film.
“John’s incredibly optimistic,” says David Meckel, director of research and planning at California College of the Arts and a member of Public Architecture’s board of directors. “He doesn’t focus on why something won’t work. It’s about incrementally trying out ideas and seeing if they have resonance.”
With 1% Solution, Public Architecture definitely struck a chord. The converts aren’t just studios with a progressive bent. Local participants include Field Paoli, a 70-member firm, and there’s financial support from such national players as Hammell Green and Abrahamson, which has 515 employees in six offices.
It helps that Peterson and his staff emphasize pragmatics; for instance, the marketing campaign stresses that pro bono projects “can become portfolio pieces that help firms gain entry to new design markets.”
“We don’t want to be an organization that appeals only to the true believers,” Peterson explains. “We need to make the case to nonprofits that good design thinking can advance their cause, and to architects that creative, aggressive pro bono work can be healthy for their business.”
Speaking of business, Peterson’s turning more of his attention these days back to the firm that bears his name. Doing good goes only so far.
“There was a point when I was putting too much time into Public Architecture, and it almost ruined us,” Peterson says. “Our accountant made that clear.”
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