Civic Duties

San Francisco’s Public Architecture forges a model for fitting pro bono services into a firm’s regular practice.

Architecture has had its saints, but for most designers everyday pro bono work—the equivalent of a lawyer’s counsel to the neighborhood choral society—remains quietly absent from their practice. John Peterson, proprietor of the small San Francisco firm Peterson Architects, wonders why. “Architects have been very squeamish about combining pro bono services with a business agenda, while law firms do it all the time—very successfully,” he says.

Unable to find an established structure for pro bono work, he started Public Architecture, a nonprofit currently “incubating” in his office. The firm seeks out architectural projects in the public realm that don’t have paying clients, then does the design work and advocates to get them built—both in the service of the public interest and to establish a method other firms can follow. Unlike the efforts of the late Samuel Mockbee’s Rural Studio or Bryan Bell’s Design Corps, Public Architecture is working within the politically dense urban arena—and the parameters of a typical design practice. “I didn’t come to Public Architecture from a deep need to do socially relevant work in and of itself,” Peterson admits. “My interest was as a designer in the world.”

The project began a few years ago when Peterson was busy designing homes but looking for ways of keeping a more balanced practice—something with, as he puts it, “a broader client.” Entering a competition was one option, but the return seemed frustrating: hundreds of firms putting all that work into different submissions, resulting in one choice that might not even be built. “What if you took all of those hours and put them toward fifty different projects that might be important to their own community?” he wondered.

Soon a group of Peterson’s staff began work on a plan for their own neighborhood, San Francisco’s South of Market district, a light-industrial, commercial, and residential community still reeling from the rapid boom and bust brought on by the dot-coms. The resulting SoMa Open Space plan, as it came to be known, offers a small-scale solution that can exist independent of the ongoing neighborhood battle over gentrification and change: replace street parking a few spaces at a time with paved sidewalk pop-outs programmed inexpensively with seating, a skate park, a small dog run, an outdoor community gym, or a bus stop café.

It’s a proposal that seems more responsive than prescriptive. It’s also meant to be prototypical—an architectural solution easily exportable to transitional light-industrial neighborhoods across the country.

While the plan’s implementation is far from a sure thing, it stands as an example of the contributions architects can make, even within the parameters of their practice. Public Architecture has other projects under way, such as a center for day laborers and a program called the “one percent solution” that helps firms structure their pro bono efforts and encourages them to devote one percent of working hours to public service.

But the question nags: who put them in charge? Tim Culvahouse, editor of ArcCA, the journal of the AIA California Council, and a Public Architecture advisor, has an easy answer: “We want to do the work,” he says. “It gets tiresome, as architects, to wait for people to ask you to take on a project.”

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