BY BRIAN LIBBY
Earlier this month, Portland State University’s School of Architecture announced the launch of its new Center for Public Interest Design, a research center investigating the power of design to make social, economic and environmental change in disadvantaged communities worldwide. The Center is the first of its kind in the nation and is headed by Professor Sergio Palleroni, a recipient of the American Institute of Architects’ prestigious Latrobe Prize for Public Interest Practice in Architecture in 2011.
Recently I spoke with Palleroni about the Center's creation, how it reflects a changing profession, and how Portland figures in as its base of operations.
Portland Architecture: How did you get involved in this field?
Palleroni: I kind of grown into my role. I grew up in Latin America. When in came to the US I thought, 'Here’s a country with extraordinary resources.' I’d seen the other side of poverty and I thought here the research could be transformative. When I went into practice I was driven by those people in need. There were lots of people in need of our services but people weren’t aware of that. It was my journey to take them to the other side of the railroad tracks, people we didn’t see in architecture magazines. I could have spent the rest of my life designing one school or clinic after the other. But there was something missing. If we were going to make change it needed to be more systemic.
The CPDI is the first of its kind in the nation. Is this emblematic of an emerging field?
When I got the Latrobe prize I set out to look at public interest practice occurring: projects that were noteworthy and models of practice that make it possible to address problems we don’t traditionally address, or not for clients we don’t. What we’re doing is literally opening the door for people to begin to understand how these practices operate and to dig deeper.
We found these practices are incredibly synergetic. They survived better in the recession. It also made us aware that the set of skills these architects have. They have planning skills, skills writing grants coming forth and maneuvering a project through public process. Take a local designer like Kevin Cavenaugh, whom we interviewed. He decided the only way to do it is to become your own developer. That’s a new set of skills that you add and can address this need.
What kind of reach do you hope to have?We are based here at PSU but our audience we hope to influence American education of students so people can teach this in studios or in outreach projects or in professional practice. We also hope to address the profession. How do we do this in learning units and educate professionals about needs they’ve seen but don’t’ know how to do it? Then there’s the research part, taking on strategic projects like the sage classroom, taking a modular building and breaking the nut of affordability. But it’s not just design or practice research but also the markets and communities, the contexts in which they exist. We’re going to continue to grow a database of practices about also adding new research into products like the sage. How do you operate in a constricted environment like that like modular construction? What is that role and how?
What we teach and research in schools needs to lead to greater opportunities to address growing public need. In 20 years a third of the world will be poor and 70 percent in cities. You think, 'How do I work in that environment?' We’re trying to provide some insights into how you might be doing that.
Do you sense a groundswell in the profession for public interest design?
I was in Berlin for a huge conference in December, Structures for Inclusion, that brought people from everywhere. What was interesting was we were all facing the same problem. The support for schools and situations is diminishing because we are strapped. But the need schools can provide is growing. As we talked, we realized we need to be more applied. The knowledge we teach in schools needs to lead to actual applications.
The late great Sam Mockbee spoke on it 13 years ago, but a lot of people were just starting in the field. It was the first time we all became aware we weren’t alone in this. We began to exchange stories. But we wanted to now: could we connect the dots and create a kind of transformative change in the system? Since then it’s been like going from BC to AD. After we started meeting, we got more systemic about it and started to learn from each other’s experience and a lot of us moving into teaching, because that’s one of the most affective ways to make change. We’ve gotten better in that way. We’ve continued to be practitioners but we’ve taken on tools we didn’t have.
The highest levels of the profession are saying, ‘Change is here: tell us what it’s all about.’ There’s a growing awareness. If you asked me 28 years ago if I imagined doing this, no. I imagined being in Guatemala building someone a school. I didn’t imagine myself actually analyzing what I do and teaching people how to do it, or how I could put more of the needs of the community within the structure of the exchange.
Why be based in Portland? How do you see the city given what you do?
In a way you might think I should have just gone to Mumbai, not in Portland where it’s like preaching to the converted. But it’s interesting. At some point you realize you have to be the most effective you can be. You have to go to places where people are trying to connect the dots. Because it advances things much further. Some of the best conversations are happening here in Portland about re-imagining what a city might be like, ideas of social equity and how we can feed ourselves from within a city.
When I’m in the middle of Africa or Mexico, an issue I’ve encountered has almost always happened here in Portland. I can sit there with a thousand other people discussing eco districts or urban farming and it can advance my thinking when I’m out there.
In every place in history there are places like this, which are trying to advance human thinking. People are really actually questioning some of the fundamental things we do. Some things Portland doesn’t do well. But I always find myself learning from the things that I’m seeing. Enough people come here and bring ideas that I’m always learning. Then the other thing is, you’ve got to find a place to live that is safe and where you can recharge your batteries and have a civil discussion about what you’ve experience and get feedback from people who understand. Portland is magic in that way and I’m thankful.
It’s like The Odyssey. Eventually you come home.
Can you talk about some of the projects the Center is involved with, such as the SAGE classroom, and an orphanage and technical school in Titanyen, Haiti?
There are three scales working really well as we launch the Center.
At one level we have the Haiti project, which we took on because of this development grant we got from France and allowed us to have this great partnership with the Ecole Speciale d’Architecture. We’re creating the orphanage in Haiti with a radical mission to make street orphans the environmental stewards of Haiti’s future. We’ve completed all the dorms and classrooms and are about to build a bakery. It has a couple hundred kids who are moving very fast. We’re hoping the rest of the landscape will be a model, a case study, of how to rebuild.
The Sage classroom is based on a national problem: that we’re building modulars for our school needs. We were one of the showcase buildings at Greenbuild. It’s had a huge success. We’ve got to the process of copywriting the design, creating an open source copyright were profits go into future research. We’ve sold it to all the major distributors in Canada. This summer we’re launching projects in several states where they’ll be implemented. I’ve learned a lot about legal mechanisms and schools and how you make change in something that’s industrial and systemic. It’s taken a long time to rethink the system. I’m just going into a meeting with the business school about how it can be marketed.
And we are working with the Rosewood community in Portland, helping them come up with a series of design guidelines that will guide economic development.
How do these projects track three different aspects of where you're headed?
We’ll develop them, and synthesize what they tell us about the possibilities for new forms of practice. It’s everything from planning to landscape design to financial planning to planning and industrial processes. They’re inextricable, a ball of string where it all goes back to the same source. That’s the cool thing about doing practice now. We no longer assume one central paradigm defines practice. We’re starting to assume the practice is messy and complex and can engage more issues than we’ve given it or thought possible to work with. Design is all of a sudden this hot commodity. We’re collaborating with the Stanford business school. Design thinking is the kind of complex thinking that’s needed to get to the future.
We need to go back to asking ourselves the fundamental questions, and understanding the world’s complex, and the ideas we’ll need to engage it are too. It’ll take us into realms that are not strictly designed, but maybe how a building gets financed, or how we implement something. Designers are beginning to realize essential parts of practicing in the modern world: how we might to that constructively. How do we even know the questions we can ask of other professionals and how we engage them?
The cool thing is if you think about it, it makes it easier to lead in my mind a productive and peaceful life, a life where you feel realized. Rather than architecture being your day job, the things that you’ve read in the newspaper can come into your designs. Why can’t the feelings we have about the world be part of design?
How challenging is it to find funding for these different endeavors?
One of the problems is we keep thinking that this is necessarily not a way to make money. One of the most fundamental conversations I have with local organizations like Outside In and Central City Concern is that Oregon has really become a pilot case for Obamacare: people are considering that housing for people who can’t afford it actually saves the state money over that person winding up in the emergency room and receiving treatment. It’s cheaper to help that person with housing than to turn you back on them. So how can we change the logic of this?
We’ve painted ourselves into a corner of how things work. We need to rethink things from the ground up. Say, is that true? Is it verifiable? Is housing the poor a net loss, or does it make us richer as a community? That’s one of the most exciting conversations I’m involved with. If that is true, there are literally hundreds of jobs for Oregon architects to be involved with. It’s actually preventative healthcare.
Should the health care money actually fund housing? That might be the best health care investment.
After a while we stop questioning. We know that the system has fundamental problems. Business as usual is not going to solve them. We need to go back and ask is the logic of things working? That’s what the center is about. Where do opportunities come from?