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The New Frontier in Education

March 1, 2012

By David Hill

University of Colorado students will design housing for the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
Photo © Rob Pyatt

University of Colorado students will design housing for the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Click on the slide show button to view images of projects by architecture students at additional schools. slide show

 

Yale graduate students have been required to design a low-income house since 1967. This dwelling, at 12 King Place, was built in 2010.
Photo courtesy Yale

Yale graduate students have been required to design a low-income house since 1967. This dwelling, at 12 King Place, was built in 2010.

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Like a lot of architects and architecture students these days, Nathan Hammitt believes design has a social purpose, and his studies at the University of Cincinnati's School of Architecture and Interior Design reflect his desire to change things for the better. “I want to use the skills and knowledge I'm gaining in architecture school for a good cause,” he says.

Hammitt, 22, had the chance to do just that last spring. He jumped at the opportunity to enroll in a class called Humanitarian Design, taught by professor Michael Zaretsky. After studying the history of humanitarianism and reading books like Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation, by IDEO president Tim Brown, the class headed to Tanzania, where a group of Zaretsky's previous students had designed and built a rural health center. Hammitt spent a week working on a post-occupancy analysis of the clinic, before traveling to Cape Town, South Africa, for a three-month stint as a volunteer with the nonprofit Architecture for Humanity (AFH). “I'm not at a point where I need to be supporting a family or making a lot of money,” says Hammitt, who will graduate this May. “While I have the chance, I want to make a difference.”

Architecture students used to go to Rome to study, and while many still do, other rookie designers are heading to impoverished and disaster-hit communities to build hospitals, houses, and schools. Design-build programs such as Auburn University's Rural Studio, launched in 1993 by the trailblazer Samuel Mockbee, have been encouraging socially conscious design work for years. But increasingly, schools are responding to student demand by incorporating humanitarian design courses into curricula and supporting faculty members who want to partner with nonprofits in public-interest design projects, both in the United States and abroad.

“A lot of architecture students are extremely interested in doing this work,” says Thomas Fisher, dean of the College of Design at the University of Minnesota. “It's a phenomenon of this generation.” Part of the impulse stems from genuine altruism, but it also can be linked to the dismal economy. “I think they've decided, 'If I'm not going to get a high-paying job, I might as well do something that is meaningful and purposeful,' ” Fisher says.

The University of Minnesota is one of many schools that has sent students to Haiti to rebuild following the devastating earthquake of 2010. Graduate architecture students have partnered with AFH to design and build several prototype schools, which also double as orphanages. “We have ongoing studios in Haiti,” Fisher says. “Students spend an entire semester there, working with locals and getting to know what their needs are, instead of just parachuting in for short periods of time.”

Architecture students from the University of Virginia are also working in Haiti, as part of a studio course called Initiative reCOVER. The current project, Breathe House, is a prefabricated structure designed for Haitians with tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS, says professor Anselmo Canfora, who is leading the class. The house contains passive ventilation and other features to minimize the spread of airborne diseases. A prototype is currently being prefabricated in Virginia, and students will travel to Haiti this spring to assemble the house in the coastal town of Saint-Marc.

“Students these days are really interested in rolling up their sleeves and trying to solve real-world problems,” says Canfora, who has also worked with students on projects in Uganda and the Mississippi Gulf Coast. “Twenty years ago, when I was in school, we would work on these really esoteric projects, like a gallery for an artist who lives out in the woods somewhere. I would never assign that as a project in my design studio today. It's just too disconnected from contemporary issues.”

Some question whether students need to travel to far-flung locales for humanitarian work. Speaking on a panel at the Victoria and Albert Museum in November, London-based architect Farshid Moussavi, who also teaches at Harvard's Graduate School of Design, said during a Q&A session, “It's quite telling that Harvard students, when they want to be activists, have to go to these areas of the world. Well, it's tougher to be an activist in America.” She added, “Most of them are not the really good students. Because it also can become an excuse and an easy option.” Her comments sparked a backlash online. In the December issue of The Architectural Review, Moussavi, who declined to be interviewed for this article, expanded on her ideas of the complexities of architectural activism, calling on architects to use their specific strengths and skills: “It is critical that different architects pursue different practices of activism at the same time, recognizing that each is not a finite or comprehensive solution, but is interrelated with others.”

Of course, architecture students don't have to trek halfway around the globe to satisfy their humanitarian urges. A number of schools offer design-build programs that serve low-income communities in the United States. Under Andrew Freear, Auburn's Rural Studio is alive and well, 10 years after Mockbee's death at the age of 57. At the University of Kansas, Dan Rockhill's Studio 804 has created Modernist houses for low-income families. Tulane University's URBANbuild program, founded in 2005 and led by architecture professor Byron Mouton, allows students to spend an entire year designing and constructing a prototype affordable house in New Orleans.

Yale has championed socially conscious design for decades. Since 1967, first-year graduate students in the Ivy League architecture school have been required to design and build a low-income, single-family home as part of the Vlock Building Project. Another community-oriented program, the Yale Urban Design Workshop, has been around since 1992.

Meanwhile, University of Colorado architecture professor Rob Pyatt recently launched the Native American Sustainable Housing Initiative. In January, 16 of his students began to design affordable homes for South Dakota's impoverished Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

Are such programs evidence that public interest design has become mainstream at U.S. architecture schools? Yes and no, says Fisher, who has written extensively about the emerging humanitarian design movement. “I find that in almost every school,” he says, “there are at least a couple of faculty members interested in it, even in schools that are very traditional. It has definitely emerged as a kind of grassroots phenomenon at a lot of different architecture schools. And I think it's great. But we have to take it to the next level.”

Fisher wants to create an entire interdisciplinary degree program based on socially conscious design. It would be “a kind of hybrid between architecture, cultural studies, engineering, and industrial design,” not unlike the field of public health, which grew out of medicine to serve the needs of communities and large populations. And the architecture profession, he adds, will have to respond by creating new avenues for students to pursue careers—and earn a salary—doing humanitarian work.

“Humanitarian design isn't just a fad,” Fisher says. “Students recognize that as a profession, we've largely relied on fee structures that allow us to do work for wealthy clients, while most of the world's population doesn't benefit from our services. There's a growing sense that at some level we have to take responsibility for the shelter needs of all seven billion people on this planet.”

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