Public Architecture, Conversations on Design and Public Impact

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Thursday, October 20, 2011
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Left to right: Jess Zimbabwe, Jair Lynch, Frank Giblin, Gabriel Kroiz. (Amanda Hurley)

Left to right: Jess Zimbabwe, Jair Lynch, Frank Giblin, Gabriel Kroiz. (Amanda Kolson Hurley)

Last night, the Woolly Mammoth theater in downtown Washington, D.C. hosted a forum on design’s potential to affect social change, organized by the San Francisco nonprofit Public Architecture and sponsored by Teknion. Attendees filed into a rehearsal hall to hear four speakers from the public and private sectors who are using design to effect change on different scales.

John Peterson, the founder of Public Architecture, introduced the session with a brief survey of his organization’s projects and programs, and a call to action: Noting that there are 1.5 million nonprofit organizations in the United States, and that their total annual revenue tops $1 trillion, he contended that this is an important client base designers have mostly failed to engage. An important objective of Public Architecture right now is “to wake that sleeping economy,” he said.

Jess Zimbabwe, executive director of the Rose Center for Public Leadership at the Urban Land Institute, spoke about her group’s efforts to foster dialogue between developers and public officials. A fellowship program that the Rose Center runs for public officials allows them to “step back from emergencies at their desks” and practice design thinking—not the most natural mode of thinking for them, Zimbabwe pointed out.

Gabriel Kroiz, an architect who is program director at Morgan State University’s architecture school in Baltimore, discussed his work on the building and neighborhood scales in that city, as well as his teaching, and Frank Giblin, director of the Urban Development/Good Neighbor Program at the GSA, described the collaborative strategies used to improve public spaces around several of that agency’s courthouse projects. Local developer Jair Lynch spoke of belonging to a “new age of developers” who are responding to the societal shift toward living and working in existing places, and put forward a five-stage model of urban regeneration.

The conversation picks up again tonight in Philadelphia, with a forum at the Arts Ballroom on Locust Street.

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