CAD Monkeys No More

The Rose Fellowship schools recent architecture grads in the rewards and challenges of meaningful work on low-income housing.

Carey Clouse sat trapped in a New Orleans city-council meeting late last year, surviving on nothing but Tic Tacs and a strong bladder. Outside, police fired stun guns and chemical spray at some 70 protesters. The demonstrators, mostly poor Katrina-battered residents, were railing against a proposal to demolish and rebuild a 4,500-unit public-housing complex, and Clouse, a recent MIT architecture graduate, was the developer’s liaison. The ordeal lasted seven hours. By evening’s end, nine people were injured and fifteen arrested. Her peers probably spent the day at a desk manipulating CAD files.

As a member of the latest class of the Frederick P. Rose Architectural Fellowship, Clouse has been thrown into the fight for affordable housing. The three-year program pairs postgraduate architects—many with little or no professional experience—with nonprofit low-income-housing corporations in an effort to mold a new generation of socially conscious designers. Fellows explore all facets of development, devising a straw-bale house for Hopi elders, financing eco-friendly add-ons (“green bling,” to quote a fellow), or attending community meetings, peaceful or otherwise. After years in the classroom, it’s a welcome chance to lay bricks and mortar, and a rare platform for advocating social justice in a notoriously self-indulgent field. After all, most recent graduates squander their energetic years logging hours for private firms to get through their required internships. “There aren’t a lot of opportunities for young architects to make change,” Clouse says. “I like to call it the Peace Corps for architects.”

The Rose Fellowship has trained 22 fellows since its inception in 1999. Katie Swenson, who completed her stint in 2004, worked to transform a destitute Charlottesville, Virginia, neighborhood reeling from a drug-related double murder into a homeowners’ enclave with 30 Energy Star–efficient units and a 3,000-square-foot church-affiliated community center. (She is now the fellowship’s executive director.) Meanwhile, David Flores helped reconfigure a Southern California immigrant village to accommodate pedestrians, a design so effective he was invited to chair the community’s planning group. In the Bronx, Esther Yang is compiling a sustainable -materials and design reference, a sort of Zagat Guide for green building. In all, fellows have contributed to more than 2,500 green affordable homes and 40 community centers.

Not every project is successful, however. Some fellows never see their designs completed or properly realized. Then there are the more nebulous constraints—the social friction that can arise when an outsider blows in bent on change. Swenson arrived at her freshly painted studio in Charlottesville one morning to find the door smashed in, the windows pocked with bullet holes. “I think I came in fairly naive; you know, ‘Oh, I’m here to help.’ And for some people that wasn’t welcome,” she says. “I had to back off and take a longer view. But one of the goals of the fellowships is to give talented young energetic people an experience in the full gambit of development. You just can’t learn this stuff unless you do it.”

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