Interning to Do Good

The phrase “bridging the gap” has been a hallmark of debates about architectural education and practice for as long as anyone can remember, with architecture’s unique “internship” period widely regarded and relied on as that bridge. It’s the catch-all and catch-up period between education and practice, which most educators and practitioners readily acknowledge needs bridging. […]

The phrase “bridging the gap” has been a hallmark of debates about architectural education and practice for as long as anyone can remember, with architecture’s unique “internship” period widely regarded and relied on as that bridge. It’s the catch-all and catch-up period between education and practice, which most educators and practitioners readily acknowledge needs bridging. For the estimated one-third of graduates that become registered architects, effectively all internships take place in a traditional design firm setting, under the tutelage of a registered architect.

In their vitally important new anthology, Bridging the Gap: Public-Interest Architectural Internships, co-editors editors Georgia Bizios and Katie Wakeford of North Carolina State University, shine a bright light on an exceedingly rare, but promising breed of architectural internships, focused on the public interest. These internships take place beyond the walls of firms, and are instead embedded in nonprofits and community organizations across the country. With 19 co-contributors, Bizios and Wakeford masterfully unite a veritable who’s who of public-interest design advocates—Victoria Beach, Bryan Bell, Thomas Fisher, David Perkes, and Michael Pyatok, among others—with some fresh new voices—Andrew Caruso, Sam Valentine, Katherine Williams, and Esther Yang, to name a few. Collectively, they hail from big firms (like Gensler), community design centers, nonprofits, and universities. Most essayists weave personal narratives with anecdotes about their internship experiences; the stories illustrate the array of settings that architecture graduates can and are working in, but also the struggles they face in the process.

In her essay, “Fitting the Square Peg of a Service-Oriented Internship into the Round Hole of IDP,” Jess Zimbabwe—a newly-minted registered architect and certified planner—recounts her experience fulfilling the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB) Intern Development Program (IDP) while working for a Bay Area community development corporation. Like two other essayist in the book, Zimbabwe was a member of the Enterprise Rose Architectural Fellowship program, specifically geared toward placing license-track graduates in nonprofits. As a young mother, Zimbabwe brings a unique perspective on short-term, part-time, and professional volunteer experiences that manifested during her fellowship, but have historically had little weight with IDP.

These types of experiences have recently been deemed worthy of partial credit by NCARB, and will under the forthcoming and much-hyped “IDP 2.0.” But Zimbabwe writes, “I fear that the driving force behind that change was current economic conditions, not a drive to ensure that an architectural internship is open to people with a wide variety of circumstances, including those that need to work part-time even when the economy is booming.” For Zimbabwe and many other interns, the real struggle and headache was contending with NCARB’s review, which rejected much of her work experience in what she thought was the final hour of her internship. The ruling delayed her registration by nearly a year.

Thomas Fisher’s essay, “In the Public Interest,” compares architectural internships first to doctors’ medical residencies, which he witnessed in his own family, but he also points to the field of public health as a model. Setting the bar high, Fisher writes, “We need to see the creation of a public-interest design profession as first a public-interest design problem: to do the greatest good for the greatest number of people at the lowest cost and with the fewest resources, as all good design should.” Turning the rarity of public-interest architectural internships on their head, Fisher warns that the immense need for design services around the world far outstrips the current supply and resources of firms, which are narrowly defined by NCARB and the architecture establishment today. Like many others, Fisher’s essay focuses on real public needs—both as opportunities and responsibilities. After all, it is the “protection of the health, safety, and welfare of the public” that is used to justify the need for architectural internship and registration in the first place. Yet even the most hopeful, determined essays in the book point out how impossibly difficult NCARB makes work for the public.

“Although public service is supposed to be at the very heart of a profession, it is located somewhere near the pinky toe of the Intern Development Program,” writes ethicist and architect Victoria Beach, as she cleverly uses NCARB’s own rhetoric to prove her point throughout her essay. “Of the 5,600 hours of work required by IDP, only 80 hours or about 1%, must be devoted to public service. However, the meaningful numbers are actually 0 hours and 0% because this required service does not have to be architectural service.” Beach looks at architecture’s internship through an ethical lens, and it’s clear in her mind that neither the period nor the program pass muster.

While a growing number of nonprofits are referring to entry-level employment opportunities as “public-interest fellowships,” there are only a precious few structured public-interest internships. Among those are the half dozen or less Design Corps Fellowships annually, the wildly popular new Design Fellowships (which elicited 400+ applications in its inaugural year), and the granddaddy of all, the multi-year Enterprise Rose Architectural Fellowship. Established in 1999, the latter program counts 35 fellows among its ranks, two of whom contributed essays to the book. The fact is we need significantly more opportunities like the Rose Fellowship and others mentioned. Given the huge need for shelter alone in the world, we really need something closer to the scale of Teach for America (soon to eclipse 16,000 individuals in the field annually) than these few, if proud fellowships.

The one real shortcoming of the book is that it is framed in the narrow context of architectural internship, rather than looking more broadly at design. Making the case for architecture—public-interest or not—is a very different proposition than design, not just as an end, but as a process. Parts of book are also littered with acronyms that are a burden to keep straight and a bore to read. That’s not the fault of the editors, and most contributors skillfully steer clear or ignore the architecture establishment’s alphabet soup.

The editors and essayists go out of their way to express hope for NCARB’s pending changes to IDP, to be fully unveiled in April 2012. Their efforts try to bridge the gap between hopeful and wishful thinking, considering this is a 92-year old organization and a program that has remained largely unchanged in its 35 years.

Together, the 19 essays constitute a scathing indictment of architecture’s über-powerful gatekeeper and its prescriptive internship program. Evidence that either the organization or its costly program is protecting the health, safety, and welfare of the public has always been scant, but this book puts a fine point on how severely both are limiting graduates’ engagement with and service of the public.

Bridging the Gap is thus a must-read for state legislators and licensing board leaders charged with acting on behalf of the public, but also for the leaders of the architecture establishment that blindly support NCARB’s policies, rather than leading the profession in service of the public. The good news is that a more contributive post-graduate experience is achievable, through public-interest internships like those profiled in Bizios and Wakeford’s book. We owe it to the public, the profession, and the next generation of architects to immediately reform the organization and program limiting and discouraging this vitally important work.

John Cary is editor of and author of The Power of Pro Bono: 40 Stories about Design for the Public Good by Architects and Their Clients.

Bridging the Gap: Public-Interest Architectural Internships, edited by Georgia Bizios & Katie Wakeford, was made possible by a grant from the National Endowment of the Arts and other support. It is available for purchase online.

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