More From the Notebook of Bryan Bell

This month’s issue of Metropolis features a multifaceted look at design activists in Public-Interest Architecture. A discussion with Bryan Bell, founder of Design Corps and author of Expanding Architecture: Design as Activism is included as a sidebar in From the Notebook of Bryan Bell , but the conversation with the architect—which we present to you […]

This month’s issue of Metropolis features a multifaceted look at design activists in Public-Interest Architecture. A discussion with Bryan Bell, founder of Design Corps and author of Expanding Architecture: Design as Activism is included as a sidebar in From the Notebook of Bryan Bell , but the conversation with the architect—which we present to you here— included more information on his influences, Rural Studio, why he doesn’t enter architecture competitions, and how he includes the community is his work.

What first drew you to designing for low-income communities?
Between my first and second year of architecture school, I landed a job with someone I didn’t really know in Jackson, Mississippi, Samuel Mockbee. He had done one affordable house and hired me to work on three more. It was pretty exciting to work with him when he was just starting. The interesting thing was we won an architecture award, but we were turned down for the funding for construction. So the perplexing question for both of us was why architects felt this was good work, but people who weren’t architects didn’t feel it was worthwhile. I think we were both challenged to try to resolve those two worlds. It was a taste of what could be—we didn’t accomplish it.

Then, after grad school, in 1989, I went to Manhattan and got the job I had wanted most in the country, in Steven Holl’s office. I realized for the first time that this was a very elite profession. My sister was helping migrant workers in rural Pennsylvania, and that eventually became the place that I thought I could make a better contribution. I headed out there, which was really the start of my community-based career.

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What did you do between that and co-founding Design Corps?
I went to work for a nonprofit, Rural Opportunities. Actually, I had gotten a $2,500 grant from the AIA to do some research on migrant housing, so I moved to Pennsylvania with the $2,500 grant, and eventually got a job with a nonprofit that served migrants in their housing programs.

Did your job with them entail architecture?
Well, the title was Housing Developer. [laughing.] A great evil, but it was the development of affordable housing. I’d been working 70-hour weeks in Manhattan, and they just were asking for 40 hour weeks, so I said, “Why don’t you let me do my architecture overtime? You don’t have to pay me for it, but if it turns out that it’s of value, then after two years we’ll change the job description so that it’s included in my 40 hours a week.” The first thing they asked me to do was to go to a site and figure out how many houses we should put on it. I was like, geez, “This is architecture and they don’t even know it.” So it was immediately clear to me and to them that architecture was a good skill set to bring to that job.

That’s an interesting issue—them needing architecture and not knowing it. Do you think there’s still that gap, that organizations don’t understand?
If I had eight words to put on a flag and run around with, it would be: They need architecture but they don’t know it. That’s absolutely what I believe. That is everything.

And when you left that nonprofit, did you take what you had learned and apply it to Design Corps?
We got a National Endowment for the Arts Grant together, and I became a consultant. I wanted to start working with other nonprofits, so I consulted with Rural Opportunities, the local housing authority, and to the other local housing groups, and realized that designers working with local nonprofits is a great model. Architects need nonprofits’ expertise, just like I needed Rural Opportunities’ expertise about migrants. Eventually I recognized that there were places where projects needed to happen, but there was no nonprofit to undertake them. I became a 501c3 myself, so that we could play both the design and nonprofit roles. We’re always teamed up somehow with the local community, but sometimes we take on the role of organizer, sometimes we’re more of the consultant.

When you say organizer, do you mean that you look for opportunities and initiate them?
Absolutely. We look for opportunities, but we confirm the need for our services before we move forward. I don’t want it to seem like we see something and just do it, in that architectural model. More typically, we engage in a discussion with local nonprofits to get a mutual understanding of what the needs are. That puts us in a position to propose some kind of design solutions. The relationship starts one step before a specific project is identified. We’re at the table, and there’s a discussion, but nobody quite understands what design has to do with affecting change.

In fact, I never enter design competitions. I never compete with any architect, because I’m most valuable where there’s no other architect and no other design skills available. If somebody comes to me and says, “This is what we need—a building with this many square feet, and we need to do this and that,” they already have knowledge of what architecture can do, which is great. But there are a lot of groups that can’t come to you with that realization. So I believe our greatest value is with groups that have an intense understanding of a social, economic, or environmental need, and are willing to engage in a discussion with us, to brainstorm a solution that in some way entails design.

So a better characterization would be to say that a project results from a relationship that you develop with critical players in the community. How do you do that?
It’s getting so much easier—people are seeking us out now. For example, we’ve done this summer studio, and we’ve done two bus shelters in Asheville, North Carolina. Then last year, we got a phone call from a group in New Orleans saying, “We know what you did in Asheville. Can you come down and do your summer bus-shelter project in our neighborhood, on Freret Street?” That conversation never would have happened 10 years ago. It’s partly word of mouth, but I think it’s also recognition by the public, who are saying, “Let’s get designers to the table.”

And this isn’t make-believe: having spent two years at the Rural Studio, everybody in that community, if they have any type of issue, they call up the Rural Studio and ask, “Can you guys come and talk with us about this? We don’t know what you’re going to propose, but we think you should be a part of this conversation.” Now, this isn’t Switzerland, this is rural Alabama. After maybe 10 years, this community realizes that design has a role to play in all these types of challenges we’re facing. If that can happen in rural Alabama in 10 years, then it’s not farfetched. I’m seeing that it’s already happening. I don’t know if it’s the success of the green movement, I don’t know if it’s because architects have been quite active after Katrina.

You mentioned different attitudes within the profession. What do architects see their role as being, and how has that changed in the time that you’ve been doing this kind of work?
The attitude that existed when I was in school was: you can either do good design or you can do community design. I hate to even mention that, because it’s no longer the prevalent attitude. At that time, the best designers, although they may have really wanted to do socially beneficial work, felt that wasn’t the best application of their skills. I really credit the Rural Studio’s Bryant House as one of the first cases where people saw both. After that, nobody could ever say to me again, “You have to choose.” It has been done; it can be done again. Now architects don’t have to make that choice, and believe me, the people I have applying for our design fellowships are the best in their class. And besides, I just think the generation rising now is much more community-service oriented. People in general have a desire to not be so passive about what’s happening in our world and to take responsibility for things that aren’t going so well.

Is that why you’ve said that you realized a long time ago it would be the next generation that made the difference and not yours?
Yes. People in my generation—their careers are pretty set. While they may be doing great things through their traditional practices, the services that we haven’t even conceived of yet are not going to come from my generation. I went to a conference with some students from Harvard last year, and I have yet to be at the same level of activism as these students. They were unbelievable—immediately going to the provost to ask for money. I wouldn’t go to the provost of Harvard, or any university, in a million years. These guys raised $50,000, not only for the conference, but also to fund some grants that we’re giving out to students that are similar to the $2,500 grant that I got. They are doing a lot of this work without getting any credit.

I wanted to talk about the business side of things and whether or not it’s possible to do community-oriented work as a part of the mix of a traditional practice.
I can answer very simply. There are thousands and thousands of nonprofit organizations in the country that pay their staff living wages. The only thing it takes to be a nonprofit is to serve the good of the public. We do housing, we do economic development, we do educational projects—we just prioritize design on all those projects. Believe me, I’m not inventing any business model here. I just have knowledge of how nonprofits run, and how they pay their employees. Our business model is very traditional.

A lot of it is grant driven—is that the key to the nonprofit model?
When I graduated from Yale University, with a master’s degree, I had never even heard of Rural Development, which is the sister agency of HUD. I mean, don’t you think someone with a master’s degree from Yale would have heard of a federal program that spends billions of dollars on housing every year? So, yes, it is driven by grants and federal funding, but this stuff is being spent every year on thoughtless—I don’t want to say thoughtless, but it’s not going through organizations that prioritize quality design. The first program I found was a billion-dollar housing program, and there’s not a single architect involved in any of that housing. A billion dollars, no architects. I was in school during the Reagan administration and my professors were saying, “There’s no more federal money for housing.” They should have been fired for that statement. If you combined HUD budget and Rural Development budget, you are talking about a significant source of funding. That money would be better spent with people who are good at prioritizing issues. It’s not one solution fits all. I worked in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, which is a national park, doing low-income housing. That’s a very unique combination of needs, where generic affordable housing solutions without designers would have incredible local opposition. Communities are complex. Their priorities and values are complex.

How much of what you do is devoted to finding funding, versus design time?
Let me tell you simply what the grant application entails. It entails answering these questions: “Who are you trying to help?” “How are you trying to help them?” “What data can you show that this can help them?” “How much is it going to cost?” “When will it be done?” “How are you going to verify that you helped these people?” Those questions are critical to what I do. If it happens to be that I put that information in an envelope, mail it off, and get money, that’s great—then it’s a grant. But I still need to do those things.

So it’s simply part of the design process.
Oh my gosh, answering those questions is the critical part of us being effective. All a grant-giver wants to know is, if you are doing something valuable with the money they’re giving you. And, heck yeah, I want to do something valuable. After you get out of school, you don’t have the same structures for a review process. Our structure and evaluation process for ourselves is through grant-writing. So your question, “How much time do you spend on design and how much do you spend on grant writing,” is one of those misperceptions about grant writing. In fact, Rural Opportunities told me, “You’re the only time we got a letter of support with fruit on the letterhead.” That was from a farmer saying they needed new migrant housing. Frankly, I think that made it a better grant than having Rem Koolhaas write a letter, because this was the community validating that out there in the apple orchards, there needs to be new migrant housing. Let’s say I had a million dollars, and I made up a project and I built it. In my experience, there’s a 99 percent chance it would sit empty. There’s no way that I could make up a solution and have it work without involving the people who would use it.

I think we just came full circle to your point about Rural Development—that the fundamental difference doesn’t lie in the nature of the work. What’s missing is an architectural awareness of the resources and opportunities.
Look at Sambo, whose genius was his love of people. What he taught me was that there’s something poetic in every person. You look for that poetry, no matter what their income is, no matter what kind of privileges they had or didn’t have. If you just believe that there’s poetry, you find it, and that’s what should be realized in the architecture you do for them. That’s just such a wonderful belief to have. You don’t look at somebody and think, “Oh, they’ve got problems.” You look at any community, even a challenged community, and you say, “What is special and wonderful about this place and these people, and how can we make that part of the solution?” One of the most important changes happening in social services is that you don’t just get an outsider’s attempt to solve problems that will create dependency. You look for assets within the community. It’s a path out of dependency, and it’s also a path of celebration of these micro-cultures. That right there is what inspires me as a designer. Finding those moments, making them into buildings.

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