Public Architecture

Lessons from the Marginalized:
A manifesto for truly public architecture

Though projects like Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao have thrust architecture into the limelight of popular culture, the relevance of architecture in the contemporary urban dynamic remains limited at best. With the exception of a few efforts within the academic realm of architecture, the profession exists primarily as a service industry, waiting on clients to approach with commissions, and constrained by an economic model that seldom encourages innovation or risk beyond the rigidly defined goals of the clients. In such a model, the focus becomes the pursuit of producing “architecture for architecture’s sake.” This ideology is noticeably disengaged from the public realm, where a multiplicity of identities, constantly evolving social structures, and often competing economic and political forces require architects to undertake the complicated issues that the profession is reluctant to confront.

There have been times in the past when the profession believed that it had a role to play in the social sphere: social treatises and agendas were key elements of the modern architecture movement and again in the social advocacy movements of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Yet both epochs yielded more failures than successes in this regard. With modernism came public housing and urban renewal. And both have come to be derided as having detrimental effects on the modern city and the profession’s relevance. In the aftermath of these large scale design initiatives, the ‘60s and ‘70s witnessed the emergence of “advocacy” or “participatory” planning, in which design was undertaken from “the bottom up.” In the quest to include all community stakeholders in the planning and design process, architects ceded a great deal of their responsibilities to achieve consensus, and thereby distanced themselves from the failures of the previous decade. Designs did not become better, more holistic urban elements that synthesized multiple, overlapping identities, but rather disparate collages, loosely joining together the needs and desires of various constituencies.

The failure of these past efforts does not relieve architects of the responsibility to seek out and act for change or progressive solutions. As we witness an increasing stratification along social, economic, and political lines, notions of space--particularly public space--become all the more significant. It has also become increasingly clear that traditional architecture forms often prove to be inadequate in addressing new social structures and the needs they present. It is in this context that Public Architecture has emerged.

Our organization’s mission is to establish a new model for architectural practice by working for the common good through unique and collaborative ventures that are not bound by the constraints of conventional architecture practice. In the traditional model, architects are approached by clients who often come with particular problems that are often addressed in conventional ways. To us, the more interesting--and pressing--situations are those in which the client must be identified. These are the clients who have no voice, stakeholders that have been marginalized by the dynamics of the contemporary urban condition. And yet, their lack of a voice does not mean that they are any less entitled to the benefits of a healthier public experience.

Embarking on this realm of socially engaged architecture, we are mindful of the lessons of the past. The social modernist architects approached the urban landscape with the notion that architecture could create a utopia, resolving some of the social and economic ills of the modern city. Their inclination to the social responsibility of architecture was correct, but their belief in the ability of architecture to resolve these immense issues on its own was not. The subsequent participatory approach to design did not fail because of the inclusion of a public voice but because the designers ceded their own voice--and thus expertise--in favor of compromise and because of a misguided interpretation of professional service.

It is in this light, that Public Architecture tackles a project like the Day Labor Station. It is estimated that there are over 117,000 day laborers looking for work each day in the U.S. Though the majority are male and of Hispanic descent, the day laborer population cuts across various ethnic groups as well as both sexes. Given the increase in the number of day laborer sites nationally, it would seem that this population has been increasing. This increase is not just reflective of rising immigration, but also the increased demand for low wage labor in the critical industries of the U.S. economy, such as construction and agriculture. The lives and work of day laborers had been largely invisible, operating in an informal economy that remained outside the purview of official recognition. The current immigration debate has changed this, thrusting this population into the limelight. However, the newfound attention to this population has not rendered them visible in the context of public space. Day laborers are still considered as a singular mass, connected with a hot-button issue. They remain faceless, and thus, still without a voice.

It is in the context of the faceless and the voice-less that we worked with photographer Elena Dorfman as part of our ongoing research. Through her striking photographs, we seek to engage the individual day laborer. Instead of an unknown member of a nondescript group, we want to call attention to day laborers as individuals with tangible needs, beliefs, and desires.

Oddly enough, it is not the places where day laborers work that have become the spaces of conflict, but rather the places in which they go to seek work. Images that flood our screens and papers are of street corners, gas stations, and Home Depot parking lots. For the most part, these day laborer sites do not have a physical presence other than that which is formed by the gathering of laborers and potential employers. In recent years, there have been efforts by a few municipalities and nonprofits to create official day laborer centers. These are often based on the “union hall” model and allow the day laborer system to become more codified. Yet these places have had mixed success, partly because the designs and construction rarely employ the voices of the laborers themselves and thus lack a sense of ownership and rarely are they based on the existing social and professional structures of the day laborers.

In proposing the Day Labor Station, Public Architecture is identifying the day laborer, not a municipal entity or a nonprofit, as its client. As such, we acknowledge their individual and collective voices: their realities, their needs, and their desires. The social structure that forms the underpinnings of their lives is not viewed as an appendage that will adapt to whatever structure is built, but instead an armature on which the design is based. With this perspective and with further research, and creative exploration, Public Architecture seeks to produce an actual product that provides an institutional spatial visibility to the day laborers and engages the debate around their presence in a new light.

It has been written by South African architect Iain Low that every building can be a manifesto, “a declaration of what is possible.” With projects such as the Day Labor Station, Public Architecture argues that this philosophy applies not only to buildings, but to all spaces. When architects commit themselves to operating in the public realm with a belief in the inclusive responsibility to affect our complex societal structures, the possibilities for themselves, the profession as a whole, and society at large are truly endless.

Essay authored by Liz Ogbu, Public Architecture’s Designer & Project Manager. It will appear in the Design for the Other 90% companion publication, published by the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum.

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