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Bridging the Architectural Divide: Public Architecture

CCA LiveE | Tuesday December 21st, 2010 | 1 Comment

This post is part of a year-end series by MBA students at California College of the Arts’ Design MBA Program. Read more about our annual partnership here.

By Katherine R. Ganim

Public Architecture’s Logo

Since its inception in ancient times, architecture has been a service provided to the wealthy and powerful.  The poor have buildings; the rich have architecture.  This concept of architecture reaches beyond mere construction to a higher level of culture, theory, intellect, and art.  This has had an influence not only on the way people interact within a given place at a given time, but also in forming a historical understanding for subsequent generations.

“I believe that the site is sacred, and no one else sees that because there´s nothing here.”

Created in 2002 and based in the SOMA district of San Francisco, the firm Public Architecture has set out to bridge the disparity between the elitism of architecture and the common use of the majority: the “public.”  Their mission statement has been made into their logo, pictured here.  It clearly illuminates their intent in bridging this gap between architecture and social responsibility which, throughout history, have only co-mingled by way of rare happenstance.

As explained by their founder, John Peterson, Public Architecture aims to react to the existing conditions of a site and its existing community, rather than prescribing new or idealized conditions.  Architecture, he believes, should serve; it should not cater to a higher-class population in an attempt to “change the face of the neighborhood” or “clean up the neighborhood.”  Public Architecture argues that designers, whether they accept it or not, do work that has a profound social impact.  The firm aims to maximize their impact in an intentional way, and to make others aware of their philosophy of working while they do it.

Take Public Architecture’s concept for developing their home neighborhood, SOMA: they recognize that it lacks public space and has a number of other issues, such as high rates of homelessness and drug use.  In the leather district there is a strong gay presence.  Rather than plans to sterilize this area for gentrification, Public Architecture proposes to embrace its culture by implementing a number of “mini-Venice beaches,” that cater to the interests of the existing users of the space.  These spaces would take the form of public parks adjacent to and stewarded by businesses (primarily leather shops, in this case), which would maintain them.  They would be accessible to the public, and of direct benefit to the business´ customers.

Despite its seeming universality, architecture has a tendency to try to make an impression on other architects and architectural critics; designing for the specific users of a space is often less of a priority, if it is considered at all (outside of single-unit residential design) or, when people are considered it is in an extremely generic way.  This tendency has struck me, a grad student in architecture with a background in the social sciences, as bizarre, despite its ready acceptance in the field and my occasional ease in falling into the same mindset.

Public Architecture is loudly questioning this disconnect.  They are offering a new mindset for architects, providing an alternative to consider while designing: embrace a place´s identity and its users, however “undesirable” as compared with conventional standards, rather than attempting to impose an idyllic standard at the expense of a place´s identity.

Katherine R. Ganim is a Master of Architecture student at the California College of the Arts.  She has taken LiveExchange as an elective this semester to pursue her interest in business through CCA’s dMBA Program.


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  1. December 22, 2010 at 5:40 am PDT | Jay B. writes:

    I fully adhere to your point made at the very beginning that the architecture was originally designed for the rich and had a different message. Primarily it was to fascinate and make all the by-walkers feel in a daze. The image of architectural style has changed significantly and nowadays it is more subjected to practical use. I don´t want to diminish the significance of exterior and overall look but it seems to be of lower importance as it used to be in past centuries. All this we need to bear in mind when judging the architecture.

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