BY BRIAN LIBBY
The American Institute of Architects has named Sergio Palleroni, professor of architecture at Portland State University, and three of his colleagues from across the country as the recipients of AIA’s 2011 Latrobe Prize. Palleroni and his colleagues won for their research proposal looking into the role architects play – and could play in the future – in public interest projects. Palleroni is Professor and Fellow of the new Center for Sustainable Processes and Practices at Portland State.
The prize includes $100,000 in research funding for the team, which in addition to Palleroni, includes Bryan Bell, executive director of Design Corps; Roberta Feldman, professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago; and David Perkes, AIA, director of Gulf Coast Community Design Studio at Mississippi State University. Theirs was one of nearly 500 proposals considered for the prize, which is given every two years.
Palleroni has concentrated since the 1970s on issues of housing and community development in the developing world, working with organizations such as the United Nations, World Bank, and the governments of Chile, Colombia, Mexico, Nicaragua, India and Taiwan. He received a bachelor of architecture degree from the University of Oregon and a graduate degree in research from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "I was interested in how different cultures negotiated in places like cities," he explained, "and how you get people to co-exist." Some cultures such as Japan and Korea, for example, have adjusted well to dense city life, while other cultures have been mired in corruption and inequity.
The research done as a result of the LaTrobe Prize will explore how the architecture profession can get more involved in issues like planning, transportation, and housing, from which Palleroni says (accurately so) architects have been too marginalized.
"I think we’ve taken ourselves out of the debate of where society should be headed and the things that should be happening. We’re involved with so little that happens worldwide. It’s a tiny fraction of what gets built that comes from architects. In housing, for example, it's only about five to eight percent of housing. We wondered: why is that? Everybody’s been quoting that figure yet nobody knows where it comes from. What percentages are we really talking about, and what portions should we be accessing?"
"Twenty years ago, you’d be branded as an idealist or off your rocker [for preaching environmental architecture]. But at least now people are saying these are important issues. Things are changing. What we’re hoping to do is look at how people are taking this on and use it as an opportunity to reimagine what the profession is doing and what these new models are. We hope we can make a guide for the profession of an alternative path, a theater of operation for architecture."
"What we’re planning to do is conduct some national surveys to see how involved architects are right now in these kinds of larger ideas," Palleroni explains. "Bryan Bell is leading that. We’re going to take that and try to create a baseline to see what the profession is interested in and second what it is involved in. then we’’ interview these models and try to understand them well enough to describe them back to the profession as well."
Palleroni specifically points to how metropolitan areas, even progressive Portland's, develop mostly on their suburban fringes without much restriction on what gets built. "We can’t just let these decisions trickle down to the guy with the pickup truck in the suburbs building houses," he added. "We have to be in there making sure the houses are truly sustainable. It can’t be a generic McMansion, but housse designed for place."
"It seems like we’re denying ourselves some of the most interesting things about America. To me it seems like, just from a selfish point of view, I want to be involved in those big questions. It’s an opportunity to be involved in the kinds of things we were involved in school. Too often we end up being pedestrian about our ambitions. People say nobody pays us to be idealistic."
Interestingly, when Portland State initially sent out a press release to several local media members last week about the LaTrobe Prize, one local conservative website editor responded to all of us with a diatribe about socialist architecture. He wrote of "socialist architects" and a "barrage of propaganda from your Oregon public education and 'modern' university education."
"We have seen the photos of the people leaping from the upper floors of Chinese mass housing adjacent to factories which are urban versions of communist agricultural communes," Leonard writes, "and so are aware of the human cost that comes with the influences of state industrial 'capitalism.'"
"Modern (in a purely time sense) architecture emanating from somebody who has a degree from Harvard and now teaches the profession at a California university, is to us immediately suspect. 'Green' to Progressives, means political efficiency, not intentional technological or environmental efficiency. A socialist does not care about the cost per kwh, or how the design suppresses the soul. Serfs do not have souls."
Advertisement for one of Palleroni's lecture last year
One can only laugh off the critique of modern architecture, but I asked Palleroni about the more serious notion that architectural planning takes away freedoms.
"Why would we deny architecture being involved in all kinds of issues? I've practiced in Latin America, Asia and Europe. A lot of these places are out-competing us in the capitalist world," Palleroni said. "And in those places, architects are involved in a lot more. Developers are seeing the value of having architects involved. Some of the best public debates about the city as a whole are places like Taipei. I think if there’s a problem America faces it’s that we’ve gotten ourselves into a series of prescribed roles which are not necessarily flexible to face the issues of today or the future.""I’m not arguing you take away an individual’s right to build what they want, but we need restrictions," Palleroni reasons. "I want a big house with bells and whistles too. But there are so many ways you can cut the pie up. The challenge now for architecture is how we make people happy and give clients what they want in their building, but also be responsible to the practice. The world just doesn’t have enough resources to do everything. We’ve been living with a kind of no-limits mentality. The average American house since World War II has gone from 250 square feet per captia to 1000 square feet. The average house has gone from 1000 to 2500 square feet, with fewer people living in them. Not everybody’s going to get what they want, but you can actually have some pretty cool houses without consuming everything. That’s where ingenuity is involved. That’s where an architect can get involved and help a client get all the fun stuff you wanted in maybe half that size. If that’s socialism, I’m totally for it."