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Tuesday, February 17, 2009

A Conversation with Raphael Sperry Part 1

The end of 2008 brought the long-anticipated collapse of the economy. With the global recession threatening to devolve into a depression, its potential impact on the architecture industry has led some architects prone to black humor to joke that they would “even design prisons.” This isn’t so funny to Raphael Sperry and his colleagues at Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility (ADPSR), who have been busy organizing a campaign to create awareness about the moral issues surrounding prison design.

Many architects are attracted by the profession’s aesthetic possibilities rather than by its moral component, and yet the basic mandate to provide structures for humanity encompasses both. All have to consider their level of involvement in creating punitive housing.

Sperry is asking questions about fundamental prison design. When he spoke at a panel discussion on prison design at the AIA Convention in Los Angeles in 2006, the AIA censored his images of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. Of course this only helped him and his cause.

Sperry is an architect with a broad vision about violence and militarism, but also a clear strategy about what to do in the here and now. He spoke with a calm zeal when we sat down for lunch at Delancey Street to talk about his recent activities.

Q: Where does your activism around prisons come from?

Raphael Sperry: The prison campaign came out of the other antiwar activism I was involved in during the run-up to the war in Iraq. I took part in the street demonstrations, playing with friends in a marching band, which was, for me, a good way to be on the street and visible and audible and feel like I had a particular role to play.

Despite the largest demonstrations that the world had ever seen, we didn't succeed in convincing a majority of the American voting public that the war was wrong. I felt that more work was necessary to shift public attitudes so that the next war, or the next violent solution to a different kind of problem, would not be so appealing again.

Q: Let’s talk about the relationship between the war and prisons.

Sperry: Despite the frequent evocations that America's a peace-loving country, we're actually a pretty militaristic country. Our military is the largest in the world, and it's engaged all over the place. We spend as much on weapons as the rest of the world combined. In some ways, Vietnam was the template for the current generation of American warfare. In the debate over the Iraq war, instead of feeling like Vietnam was a lesson that war is not a good way to solve problems, and that should it be avoided, many Americans thought the lesson was that we needed a new war that we could “win” in order to show that America is still number one.

There are a lot of Americans who are willing to tolerate war. The military -industrial complex clearly controls its slice of the budget, and nobody fights with it.

Q: But there is a difference between the Democrats and the Republicans on this?

Sperry: With the Republicans, it seems like that's part of their ideology. Whereas the Democrats, who may be ideologically opposed to it, feel like they have to jettison that to gain popular support.

To paraphrase Bill Clinton, when people are scared, they'd rather vote for somebody who's strong and wrong than somebody who's weak and right. I was tired of having government that was willfully wrong on the issues of war and peace kill other people in my name with my money. I wanted to try to do something, to the degree that I could, try to change this underlying acceptance of war and violence as a way to solve problems. Going out on street corners, handing out leaflets against the war, was not getting anybody to change their minds.

Sperry banging the drum against the war

Q: At least you had fun playing music.

Sperry: I did, I had a lot of fun. It was also my first experience with the jail system.

Q: Because you got arrested?

Sperry: Yes, I got arrested.

Around the same time, I was invited to join the board of ADPSR, which of course has a long track record of being a peace organization around antinuclear issues. I wanted to try to do some outreach to architects.

Q: Why architects?

Sperry: There’s no way that I could influence the opinion of 300 million people, but maybe I could influence fellow architects. If you want people to rethink their acceptance of violence in international policy and warfare, it helps to have something in common with the person you want to talk to. Rather than handing them a handbill on a street corner, you can have a conversation at an AIA meeting or a convention, or through the professional media. It’s a way to establish common ground so people will listen to you. Our culture is so media-saturated that it's important to protect yourself from listening to too many messages, because otherwise none of us could be productive at anything.

Q: We're getting less productive.

Sperry: Yes, it's true. But it seemed like this was an important conversation for people to have. And at the same time, through the group of musicians I was playing with who were radical community organizers of different types, I had heard about the critique of the prison system as the prison -industrial complex. That stuck in my mind, because I want to talk to architects on the one hand, and the prison system is a network of buildings.

Photos of the Delano II prison in California, courtesy of Calif Dept of Corrections and Rehabilitation

Q: Tell me more about this critique.

Sperry: There are a lot of social issues that have been taken in the wrong direction because of the American military – because of how expensive it is, and also because of how it makes our society more violence-prone. Arguably, that's why we don't have a good healthcare system, arguably it's why other social issues in the United States – like social security, income security for elderly people, education, working conditions, and so forth – are so degraded compared to those in other wealthy countries. Unlike prison, with a lot of those issues, it is harder to say, “it's just about the buildings,” and with my intended audience of architects I wanted to talk about buildings, because we’re responsible for the built environment of our society. The idea of a “prison -industrial complex” is like the military one in that it’s an interconnected series of public and private institutions that use public money but function with little to no real public oversight because of the imagined threat to security that would result if their business dealings were made public.

Q: What is the connection of the military -industrial complex and the prison -industrial complex?

Sperry: Both of them rely on a simplistic division of the world into good people and bad people, good guys and bad guys, and they rely on a very clear rule that it's okay to use unrestrained violence against the bad guys. As soon as you know who the bad guys are, in the case of Iraq, you go out there and kick the shit out of their country. It doesn't matter how many innocent people die, because American violence is on the right side, against the bad guys. And since we're the good guys, whatever we do is okay. And not only that, it's important to punish the bad guys. That was the way that people understood the Iraq war. That's why capturing Saddam Hussein and executing him was such a big deal. If you really thought bringing democracy and liberation to 25 million people was important, the fate of one man couldn't possibly really be that important. But if it's a moral story about watching the bad guys be punished by the good guys and get their comeuppance so the good guys win in the end, then it kind of made sense to invade that whole country.

Pelican Bay State Prison

Q: And prisons are the domestic counterpart to this narrative?

Sperry: Yes. The domestic narrative is that the country's full of bad guys who are criminals, and if we put them behind bars, then the good guys would be safe. And it's okay to use violence against the bad guys. The American prison system, it turns out, has been widely criticized around the world by human rights advocates for the way it operates. Sometimes those are issues of a few bad apples, like the stories about Corcoran State Prison in California, where prison guards arranged gladiator-style fights between prisoners and shot at people with impunity. But it's much worse than that – we have systematic problems that make our whole approach to incarceration (and to criminal justice more generally) unethical in major ways. For example, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have pointed out that long-term solitary isolation is by its very nature a violation of human rights, as defined by most developed countries. Yet the United States has very clear policies in most of the states and the federal system allowing the use of long-term solitary isolation. They have entire buildings and entire wings of many buildings dedicated to isolation, so they're ready, willing, and able to perpetrate human rights abuses as a matter of policy.

I think a lot of people have the idea that once somebody's a convicted criminal, whatever you do to them is okay. Because they're bad guys, the important thing is to punish them.

I wanted to reinforce what I think is a better, more adult, mature, peaceful, and progressive way of responding to crime. There are a lot of promising alternatives to incarceration that actually work and that focus on healing the injuries caused by crimes, restoring damaged communities, and dealing with the roots of crime, whereas our current system has tried to do those things for over thirty years and hasn’t produced any benefits for public safety. Its very size – over 2.3 million people – makes it the largest prison system in the world (and the largest per capita), and involves over 5,000 buildings, most of them built in the last thirty years. And for what? Our crime rates are no better than they were thirty years ago, and the communities where most perpetrators come from (and where most crimes occur) are still doing as poorly as they were before. People of all types are still afraid of crime – having more prisons almost seems to make the problems around crime bigger. It’s not like some day we will lock up the last bad guy out there and then everyone will be safe – it doesn’t work like that.

I think that people who embrace the international version of “bad guys need to get punished with violence” are going to embrace the domestic version. If we work on the prison issue and get people to change their minds about what it means to be a good guy or a bad guy, and understand that the world is more complicated, that violence doesn’t have to be used to respond to these social problems, then eventually this kind of thinking could also play out in the international arena. If violence is no longer our first recourse against criminals at home, then I think we will also be much less likely to use war against opposing nations abroad.

Future blog entries will include Sperry’s strategies and experiences trying to influence his fellow architects.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Designers of the Year

On January 30, architects John Peterson and John Cary were named “Designers of the Year” by Contract magazine. They are the first design professionals to receive this honor for their work as advocates within a nonprofit rather than as members of a design firm.

Their reach extends further than most designers. Public Architecture (www.publicarchitecture.org) feels that design can help change communities and in turn change itself. See the video that this interview was conducted for.

The conversation took place on Election Day, before we knew that Barack Obama was to be our next president. Public Architecture’s commitment to service resonates with the country’s new era. We thought you might enjoy the longer conversation in which they explain the organization’s founding, projects, and philosophy.

Q: Every year, the Designer of the Year is asked what the word “design” means to them personally.

John Peterson: In the broad range of possible activities on the planet, design is a marriage between art and technology and the creation of things. There is some balance between the technical and the artistic.

John Cary: I think design is what really makes things, be they objects or experiences or spaces, unique and distinct from the next. At Public Architecture, we are bringing design to people and places that wouldn’t otherwise benefit from it. Right now, design suffers from a kind of class issue. It costs money to get things or places that are truly well designed. And that’s one of the barriers we’re trying to break down.

Q: Does that mean the democratization of design is in America’s future?

JC: I think what Public Architecture and groups like us are trying to do is truly democratize design in a way that still maintains all the lofty goals and expectations of the design professions that we were all attracted to in the first place, but brings it to a much broader audience.

Q: Where did your interest in socially conscious design come from? Did faith have much influence on you?

JC: I came into this line of work somewhat unexpectedly. I went to undergraduate and graduate school expecting to be an architect. But somewhere along the way, I got interested in the politics of the profession. And my exposure to that revealed to me the limits of who the design profession really serves at any large scale.

As I began to think about this more over the past few years, it has occurred to me that I’m the son of a 30-year nonprofit executive director. And while I was raised in a quite religious family, my interest in social justice and those kinds of issues is totally distinct from religion and faith. But if you compare me to the way that John Peterson came into this, there is a very strong thread from my early days of architecture school all the way through.

JP: We did come at this from a couple of different platforms. I really was committed to design work, in many ways, for itself, and very interested in pursuing design work independent of its political consequences, which I have come to believe was an adolescent idea. Look, architecture is very political, whether you accept it or not.

I really came out of a tradition that was primarily focused on design and was independent of the social ramifications of the work. That has really colored the nature of Public Architecture. We have not positioned ourselves to somehow be separated from the progressive design community. We’ve always seen ourselves from day one as bridging the worlds of progressive design and a socially progressive group of designers.

Q: Do you see this work as an alternative career within architecture?

JP: I don’t see this as an alternative career for me. We are a nonprofit organization instead of a for-profit organization. In many ways we are doing many of the same things you do in a traditional design firm.

This is just an extension of the work that I found most engaging. My work changed its nature based on my growing interest in looking beyond aesthetics. The trajectory of my own architectural design thought included things like social responsibility, social justice, socioeconomic issues, and political issues.

At the same time, I understood that I was not a unique designer in this regard. If I was having those feelings, other designers were also probably having those feelings, and there was an opportunity to really capture the will and imagination of the design community as a whole through this sort of change in interest.

JC: That question has haunted me from the very moment that I started my career, and yet, for me, it wasn’t an alternative to anything – it was the career that I felt I was prepared for, that I was interested in, that I was passionate about.

The “Designer of the Year” designation is important in that we are being recognized for everything we’re doing, whether it’s program management, development, project delivery – because it all involves design and it is designed.

JP: John’s generation is going to change how we look at a design career, and his generation is not going to put up with the narrow view that earlier generations did.

Q: I think you are being recognized, at least in part, because you are trying to help communities in a concrete way, but also change the way architecture sees itself and eventually the way design might be perceived in society. So how can architecture and design inspire the general public day to day?

JC: Very early on in the development of the organization, we got a really profound taste of how design can inspire the public and what that means for us as an organization.

This was through the design and construction of, and ultimately the broadcast of a National Geographic Channel documentary about, our ScrapHouse project. This was a project that we designed and constructed over the course of just six weeks as a temporary demonstration home. It was a house built, essentially, of garbage, in front of San Francisco City Hall.

During the period that it was under construction as well as the four days that it was open to the public, we welcomed over 10,000 people from all walks of life to experience a different kind of architecture, which took risks. Yet it made people feel good, even though they were experiencing something new and unique.

Q: Let’s talk a little more specifically about Public Architecture. What was the evolution of the organization?

JP: It began with my private practice. We were fortunate to have a number of good residential commissions. But I think there was a level of pent-up energy around participating in design projects that had a larger impact on the community. To accelerate our opportunities to work in that kind of environment, we took on a project locally that we conceived of ourselves, and just thought, “Let’s take on a project and pursue it within the office as a way of exercising our interests,” without any understanding of where that might go.

Q: Which project was this?

JP: An open space project for the South of Market neighborhood here in San Francisco. In the simplest of terms, it was at our doorstep. South of Market is a light industrial area of the city moving to mixed use. And like other cities in this country, these areas lack some of the urban amenities that other parts of the city enjoy, especially recreational open space.

We posed a simple question: if we added this to this urban fabric, what would that solution look like? Our proposed solution ended up capturing the attention of many people within the city, including several city agencies that encouraged us to pursue the project, which is ongoing as we speak.

This led to the larger question: why aren’t architects in this role more frequently, where we’re actually going out in our communities, using our skills and expertise to identify problems in our communities, and then proposing solutions to those problems that may be overlooked by other forces?

Q: So often something important begins with looking at what is right in front of you. You just have to take the first step. So when did the 1% Solution come into being, and why 1%, as opposed to 5% or 10%?

JC: One percent is more symbolic than anything. It’s a small number by itself. However, if you put together lots of 1% offerings or donations from firms, it adds up significantly. If every architecture professional in the country were to pledge this 1% of their time, it would effectively be creating a 2,500-person firm – the equivalent of an HOK, for example – working full-time for the public good. That equates to about five million hours annually, and we think that there’s a lot you can do with that.

Q: What has the response been?

JC: Very positive. The pent-up interest that John experienced in his own firm is everywhere. We’ve now recruited nearly 500 architecture and design firms, ranging from sole practitioners to some of the largest firms in the country. Together, they have pledged on the order of about 200,000 hours to date. If you put even a conservative value of $100 per hour on those, that’s about $20 million right there that the profession is offering to the public on a pro bono basis annually.

JP: The figures that John is talking about are only for the architecture profession. We are in the process of expanding the community of participants within the 1% Solution to other design professionals and to manufacturers.

Logo for 1% program

Q: What are some of the other projects that Public Architecture is pursuing right now?

JC: Our mandate is that we pursue projects on a proactive basis – we initiate projects. This includes our Day Labor Station design initiative, which is one of our most significant and also one of our most politically charged projects. We also continue to advance our Accessory Dwelling Unit – granny flat or in-law unit – initiative.

More recently, with the support of a grant from the U.S. Green Building Council, we have united our various projects – like ScrapHouse, like the community center that we’re involved with up in Seattle – around this idea of material reuse. The idea is to show, through example, how scrap and salvage material can be integrated into new construction at a much greater scale than it is right now. We see that type of project as a campaign that people can contribute to and become a part of. While we are involved with specific projects, we are working to get people involved in their projects.

Rendering of Day Laborer station

Seattle Community Center

The ScrapHouse in San Francisco's Civic Center

Q: Why don’t you expand on that and talk about some of the other big goals for Public Architecture?

JP: The big goal for the work that Public Architecture is doing is to institutionalize the kind of public service activities that John is talking about. They should be part of an annual effort, part of the business model, part of a routine understanding of practice, just as it is in the legal profession.

Q: Back when you started Public Architecture in 2002, that made sense, but what about now when we are looking at the worst economic downturn since the depression of the 1930s?

JC: The current economy will continue to impact us. The first and probably the most important way is that we’ve seen an increase in the number of firms that are pledging their time, and we see that as a very encouraging thing, because they’re hopefully turning to pro bono work to help weather the down times. Rather than fall back on design competitions or some other outlet, they realize they can fill the available staff time with a project that ultimately might mean a great deal to them.

JP: It may be counterintuitive to think that in a slow economy one would give one’s time away, but we believe deeply that this is exactly the time when one should be taking pro bono work very seriously. As John’s already pointed out, it’s an opportunity to find meaningful work for staff in a turbulent, changing environment, but it’s also an opportunity to distinguish yourself as an organization and to find new avenues to express the good work that you’re doing.

This is the time for firms to be thinking about how they can wisely give of their time to their communities. And when I say “wisely,” it’s to be selective, to set high expectations, both for the outcomes of the organizations or efforts that they serve and for the outcomes that happen within their own firms.

Q: You mean understand how to exploit the benefits of volunteering?

JC: Let’s look at lawyers for a moment. They are generally thought of as better businesspeople than we are. While their fees are probably three times ours, they have a real culture of pro bono that starts in school and goes all the way through one’s career. And it’s not without great benefit to the profession and to these law firms. These firms distinguish themselves to potential employees and to potential clients based on their pro bono work. Otherwise, a lot of those law firms, in the same way a lot of our architecture and design firms do, start looking alike. This is a way that they’ve come to distinguish themselves.

State bars have unique programs that mobilize attorneys in times of crisis, in times of disaster, and in times of political uncertainty – in any number of settings – and what those state bars have also done is use these programs as leverage with their legislatures. When they go to seek changes to their practice acts or whatever it may be, they are able to point to real numbers and talk about the contributions that attorneys are making.

There are plenty more jokes about attorneys than there are about designers, but there is also an understanding that when you need legal representation, you can get it in this country. There is nothing comparable supporting the right to design – supporting the right even to shelter – and so we see all that as related. The ultimate ambition is that design becomes recognized as a right as opposed to the privilege that it is today.

JP: We say right up front that pro bono needs to be a balanced activity. As philanthropic as a firm wants to be, they need to balance that with a return to their organization, so that they’re able to fully utilize the effort that they can give. This needs to be a smart business choice. It needs to be both selfish and selfless.

Q: Simultaneously?

JP: Yes. I think that’s hard for folks to grasp at first.

Q: Can you give us an example of that?

JP: Let’s say that a design firm has done a lot of work to advance the efforts of a nonprofit organization in their community. Can they use that in a marketing environment where they can actually get exposure, help to separate themselves from other design firms, which might lead to paying jobs? Of course. Internally, their service can also lead to a better corporate culture. It can help attract better employees and retain those employees.

We believe that firms need to look at the investment they’re making and think about the return on that investment for a simple reason: their investment will increase when they understand the return that they can get from it. But they have to be diligent about it; they have to be proactive about it. They can’t be lazy about the way that they take in their pro bono work, which is primarily how the design profession has been.

Q: So this is a major sort of shift in thinking?

JC: That’s right. We’re talking about raising expectations across the board. Raising expectations within the firm about the design quality, about the way that the project’s managed and executed and delivered. Also raising the expectations on the part of the clients. An equal component of the 1% Solution is to inform and really get clients excited about these projects and to have them be as demanding as a typical client.

JP: We want to maintain the good-heartedness of the design profession but get design professionals to appreciate the value of taking a business look at their pro bono efforts. You see, if it becomes integral, I think design itself will be more valued.

JC: Our goal is not to make the profession a livelier place to work; our goal is to have an impact on our communities. We’re using the tool of design, and that’s really at the very core of our work.

JP: We need to be building efforts that go way beyond Public Architecture. We’re a catalyst, not the end mechanism, for change. We’re just a catalyst to wake the sleeping giant of the design community towards changing our communities for the better.

Small actions, organized or unified, really create the change in the world. It is powerful for people to realize this – to accept that 20 hours a year just within architecture can equal the strength of the largest firm in the country, and that, as employees, they are agents of change. They are agents within potentially the most powerful, impactful firm that this country can produce.

And I think if you can get your head around that, if you can accept that, I just think the ability of design can be expressed in a way that we have not seen before.