'Women in Design' Speaker Discusses Importance of the Public Interest
By Aria Bracci | Tuesday, April 26, 2016
Tuesday, April 26, 2016
“Let’s be clear—I’m not an architect,” began Lisa Abendroth, the fourth guest in the Spring 2016 Women in Design Lecture Series. However, having traveled the 2,000 miles from the Metropolitan State University of Denver in Colorado, she stood before the UMass community ready to unpack exactly what she is and her centrality in the world of design and architecture.
She identified herself as a communication designer, working with architects, planners, landscape architects, and industrial designers in the realm of public interest design. This position is built upon three components: collaboration with underrepresented parties, community-driven participation to identify issues “bound within environments, products, and systems,” and reaching solutions with long-lasting effects and legacy.
In traditional architectural projects, there is an absence of analyzing the project’s impact—for example, did a school, and therefore the surrounding community, benefit from increased student enrollment after one of its buildings was expanded? The reverse of this is first identifying what needs improvement in a project’s environment, since a project’s effectiveness is intrinsically tied to its solving of a problem. In this way, public interest design’s “issue-based approach” is a practical solution for solutions.
Throughout her talk, titled, "Equity, Empowerment, Engagement: A Vision for Public Interest Design,” Abendroth revisited this objective, but with each slide she focused more on the human stake in community improvement. “All things are shaped by that internal core” of social equity, she said, a prioritized goal that naturally yields economic viability and environmental sustainability, the other two central aims of public interest design.
She and her colleagues are “very interested in empowering those who don’t have a voice,” particularly by including them in the process of production and effectively teaching them how to be “contributors.” The goal of such an approach is to “fundamentally dismantle this ‘not knowing’ in order to know,” since public interest design assumes that if skilled professionals step back from traditional positions of authority and “give the power to the people, suddenly amazing things happen.”
Abendroth further described public interest design as set atop the foundation of education reform and social equity, supplementing her explanation with an excerpt from We Make the Road by Walking: Conversations on Education and Social Change by Myles Horton and Paulo Freire. However, while Abendroth herself feels competent in this area of sharing control, she acknowledged that communication skills are sometimes untapped in current architecture and design students.
She urged practical application, citing the 2007 exhibition “Substance: Diverse Practices from the Periphery,” which analyzed 55 global architectural projects through the lens of the issues of “access, education, community, shelter, and wellness.” Retroactively, it was obvious that some projects were more effective than others in addressing pressing problems.
“What’s the benefit of an issue-based approach?” she asked the audience. “Well, you’re starting by solving a problem,” answered one architecture thesis student, to which Abendroth combatted, “—and suddenly you discover what? There’s more than one problem.” Though these “primary, secondary, and tertiary issues” are not immediately resolved, they are at least identified through civic engagement.
Abendroth explained that “it is possible to engage others in a variety of different means of conversation,” such as data collection, collaborative art-based storytelling (such as in the Texas bcWORKSHOP project “People Organizing Place—Neighborhood Stories” ), or simply one-on-one interviews. In one project, public interest designers in Peru engaged communities in conversation about the benefits of green spaces and collaboratively constructed mini “front yards” for family-owned crop plots.
A “design solution” manifested in a more unconventional way in the Healthy Laddoo Project in India, in which designers ultimately created not a structural product, but a high-protein peanut laddoo recipe in response to low growth rates in children. “The conversations dictated it,” explained Abendroth, since with the “people involved, the need arose.” Such flexibility and innovation emphasizes architecture’s place within the humanities and fine arts. “Really, at the end of the day, it’s about understanding,” offered Abendroth.
At the conclusion of the presentation, one audience member wondered how it’s possible to prevent people from “running for the hills from mysterious design” to which Abendroth reiterated the centrality of the SEED Evaluator tool, which, above all else, serves to direct a designer’s focus to the most sound practices. “It’s not intended to be punitive—it’s building a body of knowledge,” she said. “It’s about celebrating our failures,” which is one of the most human things we can do.