Designing a Better World 

Architects have a special calling to improve society, having done so much to screw it up in the first place.

The flyer bore the famous photograph of Pruitt-Igoe being dynamited in 1972. The public housing complex in Saint Louis, an icon of the Modernist movement in socially conscious architecture, had been abandoned as unlivable. Beneath the photo was the legend "Want another chance?" Thus enticed, architects and social-service professionals trudged to the Merchandise Mart in February for a day-long symposium on the topic "New Opportunities for Architecture in Social Change," sponsored by the Chicago chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

The world has changed, and buildings have not changed with it. The result is a world full of people whose needs are not being accommodated by conventional architecture. Symposium organizers noted that what they called today's "societal nightmares" are creating not just new opportunities for building but new building types--AIDS hospices for kids, schools for crack babies, shelters for homeless teens and battered women, facilities with extended day care for one-parent families, and others offering support services for teen mothers.

The structures being used for such purposes are usually outdated, falling apart, or both, and often were not appropriate to the need in the first place. Most have been victims of decades of hard use and penny-pinching maintenance. Del Arsenault is executive director of Chicago Youth Centers, which serves 15,000 mostly poor kids in 17 facilities, most of which, he says, are old; the oldest dates to the 1870s. But his agency has no real choice--and many agencies like his, he told the symposium, also have to choose between spending on staff and on facilities.

Trinita Logue is executive director of the Illinois Facilities Fund, a new nonprofit capital-development agency. The IFF commissioned a survey of Illinois agency administrators by staff of the sociology-anthropology department at Loyola University. More than half the administrators polled reported that their facilities need "dramatic improvement." A quarter were reported to be "uninhabitable." More than a third were out of compliance with various building-code requirements. Agencies running programs in rented quarters have no room to expand, or they move about like vagabonds from one makeshift site to another as the plumbing breaks down or the landlord goes south.

Logue has seen agencies in offices whose walls had holes knocked through them by clumsy contractors, or had no heat, or had records damaged or destroyed by busted water pipes. "It's a very serious situation," she said. "It is common for agencies to spend more than 25 percent of their annual budgets on maintenance. In other cases, agencies have to endure the instability of moving every few years because their buildings are falling down around them."

In terms of the infrastructure, social-service agencies are not a big presence (the survey excluded hospitals, universities, and schools, which are to the typical social-service agency what the Art Institute is to a storefront gallery). But there are a lot of them--some 5,000 Illinois nonprofits. Approximately 2,300 children in Illinois are living in 83 institutions or group homes, for example, run by 53 organizations.

Spending on this social-service infrastructure is inadequate, of course. Merely bringing all such facilities into compliance with existing building codes and expanding them to meet present demands might cost as much as $1.5 billion.

Nevertheless, because there are so many agencies, their cumulative spending is sizable--an estimated $65 million annually in recent years on physical plant, mainly for expansion. The IFF has asked developers to bid on the contracts for ten model day-care centers. The feds announced in March that a little more than $45 million will be disbursed to Chicago and Cook County through the Illinois Housing Development Authority for a variety of new construction, restoration, and rehabilitation projects, including some by nonprofit groups interested in providing specialized buildings for the disabled or mentally ill.

"There is work here," says architect William Worn, "although it may not be glamorous work." Worn, a member of the Chicago AIA chapter's Government Affairs Committee, which organized the symposium, has his own small practice, one of several local firms proud to include the title "Architect to the Nonprofit Sector" on their resumes.

The symposium broke for a box lunch, during which business cards were passed as often as the salt and pepper. No doubt this frank exploitation of misery as a business opportunity struck some as crass. Worn reports that he was privately chastised--"slammed hard," in his words--by local members of the group Architects/Designers and Planners for Social Responsibility for inviting more bureaucrats than activists to sit on the symposium panel. Worn says he respects such objections but persists in his opinion that "it wouldn't hurt to go after this work as a business opportunity."

A symposium on opportunities for social change in architecture rather than on new opportunities for architecture might have been more seemly, if less well attended. The lull in private development has sent many architects scrambling for a suck at government's teat, or they're developing such specialties as airport infrastructure or branching out into building-related services like project management and planning. This kind of work seldom gets a firm on the cover of Architectural Record--does Helmut Jahn do post offices?--but it does pay the bills.

Some architects are so desperate for work that they're prepared to Do Good, the way a deer, starved for want of grass, will browse on pine needles. Harvard's Graduate School of Design offers summer programs meant to respond quickly to the "frequently changing needs of the profession," which in the summer of 1992 has meant finding anyone with money to build anything. This year's summer schedule includes courses on "Creating Environments for the Elderly," on ensuring accessibility for the disabled, and on designing children's facilities, such as day care.

These are alien realms to many architects, and for good reason. In typical human-services work the constraints on designers are tighter and the budgets smaller, yet the design program is more complex than in all but the most specialized commercial projects. A skyscraper requires bigger design, but a battered women's shelter or home for abandoned kids in many ways requires more design. William Martone, director of Evanston's Children's Home and Aid Society, told the symposium about how he asked Skidmore, Owings & Merrill to draft plans for a new residence to replace the agency's present building, which opened as an orphanage in 1907. Some 50 emotionally disturbed kids age 5 to 14, most of them DCFS wards of the state, would live there, he told them. The architects would have to cram medical, administrative, and kitchen facilities into a 60,000-square-foot building that should offer the children warmth, privacy, security, safety, and a variety of play spaces and the supervisors unobstructed sight lines ("these are kids who have to be watched all the time"). There must be an adjacent "outdoor education complex," and the whole thing has to be squeezed onto a one-acre lot.

Working with the nonprofits won't be an entirely new experience for designers, however. As Martone told the audience, "An architect needs to have patience about our fund-raising." Often social-service projects don't get built when planned, or have to be down-scaled midway through.

That part architects know about.

In the social-service sector fiscal preoccupations have largely given way to therapeutic concerns when it comes to the design of places of refuge, instruction, or healing. Facilities that used to be done automatically in the style known as "Late Cost-Effective" today must also look like "home." The challenge for the designer is to build a "home" that is also durable, easy to care for, and flexible.

Martone explains that such behavior as fire setting and fighting, common among the children who are sent to his agency, "takes a lot out of a building. These kids are extremely aggressive toward physical property." The levels of destruction wreaked by small children can exceed that of much older ruffians in a college dorm. "Our eyes lit up when we heard about bulletproof glass that is made for prisons, but it turned out that it cost too much for us to use here," Martone said.

Yet the new Evanston Children's Center must be "a warm, secure, homelike environment, not a stark institutional look." Carpets will be installed in the bedrooms, though some of the kids have wetting and soiling problems that make carpets about as practical as satin table napkins. Managers of battered women's shelters who have a choice also usually sacrifice maintenance efficiency for a homey quality. (Often they have no choice, however--most such shelters are in structures built as private homes, whose kitchen hardware and wallboard seldom stand up very long to the punishment they get.)

If the skyscraper architect is judged by his facades, the architect to human-services agencies is judged by his floors. At Rainbow House, a two-story home refitted as a shelter for battered women and their kids by Johnson and Wilson, Architects, vinyl tile was used to create the appearance of a rug in a living room where a real rug was impractical. Tom Layman, director of the North Avenue Day Nursery, recalls with gratitude the advice of the architect/consultant who alerted him to the marvelous qualities of Marmoleum, a linoleum-but-better floor covering that saved "tons of money" in stripping and rewaxing the old floors. Not every architect gets it right; Trinita Logue recalled a project in which the architect specified polished hardwood floors for a house for teenage boys, which was like using a Staffordshire bowl as a doggy dish.

If unhappy people often take a toll on the housing, the reverse can also be true. Logue explains that most dedicated social-service professionals put up with squalor out of an excess of selflessness. But people in pain, people in transition, people who are alone often are acutely (if not consciously) sensitive to their physical surroundings. Says Logue: "The environment does affect morale. Talk to substance-abuse counselors and they'll tell you that a woman will not come to a crummy place. She needs to think it's a step up in her life or she won't get involved."

The psychological impact of design is particularly important in facilities whose managers are attempting to modify their clients' behavior. As Chicago Youth Centers' Del Arsenault puts it, making kids feel they're important is hard to do when the building you're saying it in would be demolished if it weren't for indulgent municipal officials.

The Loyola researchers did not inquire into the quality of facilities design per se when they polled agency administrators. But they did note that a facility's suitability matters as much as its size, citing studies of the many ways that such spatial features as the shape and volume of rooms and the number and placement of windows have been found to exert "powerful influences over social behavior among the old, the ill, and among victims of domestic violence."

Most architecture schools neglect the sociological and psychological implications of space as an aspect of design, much the way medical schools have traditionally neglected nutrition as an aspect of medicine. Architect John Boyer, whose firm is designing a new building to replace the original Marillac House, an 89-year-old settlement house, notes that any good architect relies on what he calls a synergistic relationship with a client. "We're not always on top of the research," he admits. "We rely on the client to bring that to us."

The problem is that the client isn't always on top of the research, either. Arsenault told the symposium, "When you deal with social-service people, remember that we didn't go to school to learn to work with buildings." Marc Haupert, executive director of Chicago House, an AIDS home, agreed, noting that people who run organizations such as his are not "facilities-oriented."

Tom Layman of the North Avenue Day Nursery notes that building or remodeling sometimes forces staff to examine for the first time those ill-lit corners of their programs that the physical environment illuminates. The nursery moved into a newer existing building a year and a half ago, and Layman recalls that the building's configuration forced them to make do with two smallish rooms, each big enough for 8 kids and one teacher, rather than the 16 kids and two teachers that are standard in the day-care industry. Unexpectedly, they have proved to be the nursery's best rooms, because the smaller group size made for a more focused, intimate classroom experience. Says Layman, "Everybody in day care knows that group size is the main factor in program quality, but even the profession is not sure what the optimum group size is."

The now-defunct Chicago Architectural Assistance Center published a manual, Planning a Licensed Day Care Center, that addressed code compliance and generic design issues. But such guides can never anticipate all the design needs of such programs. Many centers, for example, have learned the value of putting windows in the walls separating classrooms and hallways. ("They really cut down on child-abuse claims," Layman explains.)

Most agencies already have expert design consultants on the site: the staff and clients. The Chicago Housing Authority's director of modernization and development, Deborah Moore, told the symposium, "Architects must work with the residents and the CHA in partnership--they know more about these buildings than you and I will ever know." Architect Peter Landon's renovation of an existing neighborhood supermarket into El Mercado--the first public market in modern Chicago that also functions as a small-business start-up center--was based on what Hispanic businessmen recalled from home.

Layman tells a story that shows how useful an insider's input can be. The North Avenue Day Nursery's new building had a large women's washroom on the second floor. The initial plan was to leave it as it was, but a veteran teacher's aide protested that the washroom was too large and that it would have to be supervised--as she put it, the larger a room, the more things kids will find to do in it. So the washroom was split into two smaller facilities, each connected to an adjacent classroom.

Getting a good building, in other words, ought to be like getting good sex--it's a matter of simply saying what you want. Some architects, however, will not be told what to do by a $5-an-hour teacher's aide who never graduated from high school. And even if they are willing to listen, says Logue, "Architects have to know what questions to ask. These are people who aren't always able to tell an architect what they want."

Kids don't always know what they want--or need. Fire safety regulations allow no more than 100 square inches of glass window in fire doors in day-care centers. Layman specified windows ten inches by ten inches, set at adult eye level--which means you can't see if there's a kid on the other side as you prepare to move through the door. "We haven't bashed any kids yet," Layman says, but acknowledges that a slot-shaped window measuring perhaps 4 inches by 25 and set low on the door would have been a safer choice.

Other groups have done a better job of telling architects what they want. The first phase of civil rights agitation led to laws that ensured that all Americans would be allowed through the nation's front doors. The second phase aimed to make it possible for them to open them for themselves. Accessibility rules for federal projects promulgated under such statutes as the Americans with Disabilities Act are designed to make buildings accessible to people whose mobility, coordination, hearing, speech, sight, or reach is limited. "Social change" isn't just changing the kinds of buildings people use, or even the ways people use buildings. Rather, it is changing what kinds of people use buildings.

So daunting are the ADA regs that Bob Regnier, an area HUD representative at the symposium, confessed that he'd expected to be hissed when he took the podium. The new rules are so comprehensively incomprehensible that an architect could make a living explaining rather than implementing them; among the speakers at NEOCON92, this year's big office furniture and design show at the Merchandise Mart, was a Colorado consultant who spoke of the employment opportunities in "code compliance," offering one's services as a consultant or judiciary witness.

A lot of mediocre design has been blamed on such codes, and it is true that designing buildings only for accessibility--or anything else--will mean buildings no better than the rules. Linda Hoke, assistant director of the Legal Center for Disability Rights, told the symposium in effect that regulations wouldn't be needed if architects and building managers stopped to think about how they might use the building if they were disabled. She explained that a door may be wide enough for a wheelchair but not manipulable by the person in it; the brass doors at the Merchandise Mart, for example, require as many as 16 pounds of pressure to push, more than most people in wheelchairs can manage. Yet the doors could be readjusted to swing open with as little as eight pounds.

Empathy informs imagination when it comes to designing for people who are different. Activists for the disabled like to note that one in four Americans will be disabled in some way at some time in their lives, by old age, injury or illness, or accidents such as fire. Hoke's colleague, Kate Yannis, complained that many building designers believe they have done their duty to people who can't see well by marking elevator floors in Braille. But a diminishing fraction of blind people know Braille. A better remedy, and one that would also aid seeing persons blinded by a smoky fire, Yannis said, would be to denote floors by simple raised numerals anyone can decipher.

Imagining space as others will experience it isn't as hard as it sounds. Everyone may not be homeless or battered or crazy, but we all have been scared, disoriented, or powerless, if only as children. Says Logue, "I can't tell you how many day-care centers I've walked into where the children can't see out the windows." She jokes that architects don't have time to spend three or four hours on their knees, relearning what the world looks like to a four-year-old--but that is exactly what is required. A modest loss of dignity could lead to a quantum improvement in day-care design.

Most of Chicago's social-service buildings went up during the turn-of-the-century spasm of social reform. The city has never recovered from what Carl Condit called the "radical decline" in civic idealism after World War I that vitiated architecture as well as landscape design and urban planning in Chicago.

Today's nonprofit human-services agency gets exploited twice, by government and by banks. Many private nonprofit agencies are essentially government contractors taking care of people who would otherwise end up in the waiting rooms of government agencies. And they provide these essential services at bargain rates--in effect subsidizing government's social-service budgets--by underpaying staff, cheating on maintenance, and making do with less-than-adequate facilities.

When it comes to capital financing, banks treat these agencies as they would commercial customers--prime rate plus two points, with perhaps further interest-rate add-ons because so often agencies' budgets depend on fickle government funding and because the building that secures the loan stands in a neighborhood where no bankers live. The Illinois Facilities Fund was set up as an alternative to the banks, to provide capital, as director Logue puts it, "in a benevolent way." So far the program has made 55 loans worth some $4 million.

Museums, hospitals, and universities--the welfare agencies that serve the middle class--are large enough and endowed enough to obtain capital through the sale of bonds, often packaged by government agencies to obtain lower interest rates. Only in the last few years have smaller agencies had such options available to them. Logue explains that the state of Illinois assembled a "community provider pool" that sold bonds to refinance the debt of 90 agencies and build them new facilities. "That helped," she says.

Yet top designers are seldom drawn to the projects that result from such programs as IFF: because the projects are small, the architects' fees are too. And the challenges are small in one way but overwhelming in another. Said Nila Leiserowitz of Perkins & Will at NEOCON92, "Often architects see health-care-facilities design projects as uncreative tasks with too many restrictions." Leiserowitz suggested ways to make such projects "creative" so architects can "approach each project with vitality and enthusiasm." Of course, the restrictions of such projects are the stiffest test of a designer's creativity; architects' complaints suggest a training that defines creativity in rather narrow terms.

Because the social-service sector is underbuilt and likely to remain that way, there are also simply fewer opportunities. John Boyer notes, "Our government is not exactly a great proponent of these kinds of facilities" compared to most of the nations of western Europe. Well-known European architects often design for populations who are routinely abandoned in this country to the mercies of hacks or cookbook architects. Among the works of 1990 Pritzker Prize winner Aldo Rossi are schools and low-cost apartment buildings; Alvaro Siza, the Portuguese winner of the 1992 Pritzker Prize, is known for low-cost housing and a kindergarten.

The fewer facilities that get built, the fewer opportunities there are to experiment, evaluate, and learn. "There is so little money for child-care facilities," Tom Layman says, "that we don't get the chance to make useful kinds of mistakes."

Hospitals and clinics, by contrast, are tracing a very steep learning curve when it comes to design, since they remain busy builders. Hospitals are not quite social-service agencies--they're more akin to hotels in design and clientele demands--but the psychology of a hospital space is much the same as that of a runaway shelter or an orphanage. Lighting, color schemes, "path-finding" symbols, even floor and wall finishes are all being found to play therapeutic roles.

The ultimate aim of research on such matters is to improve customer satisfaction and thus the institution's bottom line. Nevertheless, some of the findings promise to be useful in other situations. The national Association for the Care of Children's Health maintains a design center to encourage construction of hospital wings, clinics, and so on that "humanize" care for sick kids. Hospitals are typically designed to meet the needs of staff rather than of patients or their families; the ACCH insists that the parents of sick children (and in some cases even the kids themselves) be involved in design from the start. When they have been, the results resemble the 70-patient children's rehabilitative hospital in Philadelphia. It offers kids cottage-style rooms (with places for parents and siblings to sleep) with window seats overlooking a common "living room" containing play areas, nurses' stations, and the like.

Such approaches evince an underlying radical notion: that hospitals are for sick people, not doctors. A similar ethic informs the design of SOS Children's Villages. The SOS facilities for hard-to-place foster kids are based on a program devised to care for European children orphaned by World War II: up to 20 extended "families"--children under the care of full-time paid "mothers"--live in a single SOS complex consisting of single-family houses arranged around a commons. Usually these buildings are in the local style so as to mask the facility's institutional nature. Hundreds of such villages have been built around the world; one of the first in the United States is being built near Lockport.

The founder of the SOS movement, Austrian Hermann Gmeiner, long ago described the role architecture plays in the success of a village. "The child must be surrounded by forms that are pleasing to the eye, by a light and friendly atmosphere," he wrote, "for beauty and harmony help shape their image of what is worth striving for in this world." Possibly the standard of design for the unlucky among us in the United States is low because our architects, like the rest of us, don't quite know what is worth striving for in this world.

Stanley Tigerman, writing in the March-April Inland Architect, urged his fellow architects to lift again the banner of social responsibility, "a moral undertaking based upon the problems of the day." They would, he said, need to show courage in the face of what he called the four apocalyptic horsemen, which included homelessness and AIDS.

I admire morality in an architect as much as the next person, but the real courage is required by outcast populations who must live in buildings inappropriate for the lives they house. As Linda Hoke put it to the symposium, "My disability is being born with spina bifida. My handicap is the way you build these buildings." Hoke added that it doesn't require a radical new architecture to accommodate different kinds of lives, merely common sense.

Ah, but Mom and Dad aren't going to remortgage the house to send a kid to Tigerman's architecture school, the University of Illinois at Chicago, to learn common sense. The more prestigious architecture schools, like UIC, focus on problems in the context of design, not problems in the context of use. Mark Rakatansky, a UIC adjunct assistant professor of architecture, earned a special citation in the "architectural design" category of the recent Progressive Architecture awards for a handrail made up of 16 elements. It was configured as a camera mount at one point, a physical-therapy device at another, a fish tank at a third, and so on as it wove its way through an old people's day center in Des Plaines, the Parkside Senior Services Adult Day Health Center.

Rakatansky saw the project as a chance to "enrich" an adult day-care center through "architectural intervention." By converting the handrail--"ubiquitous and negative symbol of gerontological and handicapped design"--to such other forms he meant to illuminate underlying questions of dependency and autonomy.

The sort of thinking that turns an ordinary handrail into something it isn't in order to make a point is endemic in architecture. It may seem like harmless fun, except that it must encourage some students to forget that ordinary things like handrails have an actual as well as a metaphorical purpose. Rakatansky wrote that at each stage of the project he asked "how our architecture . . . can be more than merely a formalist or functionalist exercise." He might have asked the residents, who probably would have been fairly eloquent in pointing out that any device that can help them get to the bathroom without falling down ought not to be dismissed as "merely functionalist."

Critic Michael Sorkin argues that the impulse toward social engineering was essential to Modernism. In what Sorkin calls "the first great human potential movement," the moderns believed that deviant citizens--criminals, the poor, the insane--needn't be merely hidden, disciplined, or punished but could be reformed. Architecture was central to the process, as "a certain spatial order would translate itself into a comparable order of mind and imagination."

That principle was extended to other populations in need of improvement, from public-housing tenants to office workers--indeed, city dwellers in general. But as Sorkin argues, such reformers reckoned without the destructiveness of imposing the routines of architectural order on other kinds of relationships.

As the 1960s ended and social idealism led to social catastrophe (to paraphrase architectural historian Charles Jencks), the profession began backing away from claims to be the agent of beneficent social change. Yet the design problems of today suggest that the habits of mind that led to disasters like Pruitt-Igoe have not changed. All that's changed is that architects shrink from acting on such impulses.

The polemical content in recent architecture remains high, perhaps fueled by the anger of bright young architects over their failure to attract commissions. On display at the February symposium were photos of several recent structures, including artist Daniel Peterman's experimental homeless shelter (done in conjunction with a Chicago recycling group, the Resource Center). A front loader had buried an old VW van beneath a mound of compost; a battery for lights and a skylight had been added; and voila! you have low-cost housing. In the accompanying text Peterman confessed to an "element of irony" in the work.

Complaining about the world is an inescapable and admirable impulse in the young. But architects seem obsessed with their views of the world, eagerly commenting on it rather than trying to accommodate it. Rakatansky says he wanted to learn "how our architecture can reflect upon the social context of the Center." But surely the well-designed old people's day-care center would reflect, not reflect upon, its social context.

Some architects prefer bitching to building, since building usually requires that conscience be compromised by some extrinsic purpose. Maybe because they spend a lot of time with developers, architects learn to habitually check their consciences, the way a commuter checks his wallet on a crowded el platform. This is an old habit in Chicago. Ross Miller notes in American Apocalypse that Sullivan and Wright forged a new identity for the architect as cultural critic out of necessity, since their criticism of the trade's subservience to the comfortable led to their being blackballed in Chicago. Sullivan's and Wright's "gassy rhetoric," Miller concludes, betrayed "an anxiety, almost a panic over being thought successful in . . . conventional terms."

That reformist impulse later became imbedded in the ideology of Modernism, whose cost-efficient spareness was exploited by big business and big government, which led to the crisis of conscience from which the profession still suffers. The February symposium itself was a modest attempt to place architecture's tattered flag back on the battlements. "Rather than learning from Modernism's failures, architects have chosen to ignore architecture's potential as a tool for social change," wrote organizer Worn in the symposium pamphlet. "The dramatic failures of Modernism's attempts to address social concerns have made architects wary of attempting to do more than is possible with architecture alone."

Architects probably ought to be wary of doing more than architecture can do alone; we should be happy if architects change only buildings, and leave people to change themselves. This is not to say that architects don't have contributions to make to the social services. The IFF's Logue would like to see more of them on the boards of such agencies, where their expertise would make them essentially advocates for buildings--they could nag the boards into tending more responsibly to maintenance.

"Architecture can't bring about revolution," writes Dolores Hayden, a feminist architecture critic, in Redesigning the American Dream. "Spatial change by itself can't effect social change." Spatial change won't happen without social change either, most will agree. But to say that spatial change can't effect social change underestimates the liberating effect of good design. Linda Hoke spoke feelingly to this issue when she recalled how 20,000 physically disabled people age 18 to 55 were warehoused in Illinois nursing homes as recently as 1982, because they were not able to function physically in society on their own. "You can make people with disabilities contributing members of society," she told the architects, "depending on how you design buildings."

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