Design for Dignity

Author John Cary on the the role landscape architects can play in the public interest design movement.

By Zach Mortice 

Mulan Primary School in Huaiji County, Guangdong, China, by Rural Urban Framework and the Power of Love. Photo Courtesy of Rural Urban Framework.

John Cary’s book Design for Good (Island Press, 2017) details a now familiar formulation for do-good design in the developing world: a western architect working closely with local partners, using local materials assembled to respect vernacular traditions and modern aesthetics, employing local labor trained as an act of grassroots economic development.

From the remotest outposts of developing-world privation to the forgotten places much closer to home that exist in the shadow of great wealth, Cary (the former executive director of Public Architecture, the public-impact design nonprofit) advocates on behalf of design for dignity. “Dignity,” he writes, “is about knowing your intrinsic worth and seeing that worth reflected in the places you inhabit.” It’s not an aesthetic goal, or a measure of the designer’s saintly ambitions. It’s a quality of the users’ experience.

The building types he examines are familiar (Rural Urban Framework’s Mulan Primary School, supportive housing by Michael Maltzan for the recently homeless in Los Angeles’s Skid Row) and totally singular to their contexts. There’s MASS Design Group’s cholera treatment center in Haiti made necessary by the region’s devastation from a 2010 earthquake that piled onto what was already the Western Hemisphere’s poorest nation. Also by MASS (Cary’s prototypical standard-bearer for his generation’s inequity-attuned designers) are “maternal waiting homes” in Malawi. These combat sky-high maternal mortality rates by creating lodging near health clinics for women in the last weeks of pregnancy, assuring quality medical attention when they give birth. Atlanta’s BeltLine, the most landscape-oriented project profiled, forges a new landscape type out of a disused rail corridor: a network of greenway trails that loop an entire city.

Quoting the social activist Dorothy Day, Cary calls for places like these that create a “little cell of joy and peace in a harried world.” Cary took some time to chat with LAM about what the public interest design movement doesn’t need any more of, and the role of landscape design in the fight for more equitable cites.

St. Jerome’s Children’s Centre in Murunyu, Nakuru, Kenya, by Orkidstudio. Photo by Odysseas Mourtzouchos.

In a context where equity and dignity for a marginalized population are your primary goals, what are some things that landscapes can address that buildings cannot?

 My first thought is that it can transcend buildings and create actual places that make people feel valued, to make them feel like part of a community, from streetscaping in an urban context to a larger network of open spaces. There’s a relationship between people’s human experience and the broader landscape that they inhabit.

How do you see this book in the context of the recent history of social-impact design or public-interest design? The idea of social activism and equity pops up from time to time in design. The last time this happened was in the aftermath of the Great Recession almost 10 years ago. And back then, there was an optimism that designers could use their skills to solve all kinds of social problems. But that stance has moderated a bit with the recognition that while designers do have some agency in solving social problems, design lies downstream from politics and policy. You have to grapple with these factors in order to make a more equitable world through design. Is there a more realistic consensus growing that is OK with design’s having a limited role in how we deal with inequity?

Those were heady times, back in the 2000s, which is weird to say. That was a really important moment, because it did galvanize a lot of design professionals around this idea that architecture and design had a larger role to play. It was a movement-building period.

I think there’s still a long way to go. There are designers of all stripes [who] understand that any product or building or space is part of [a] larger system, and we need to improve those larger systems before we expect some individual building or landscape to make the change that we want to see. And yet, we’ve seen cities transformed. I’d point to some of the civic-scale projects, like the High Line or Brooklyn Bridge Park, to show that we actually can implement these large-scale projects that improve a lot of people’s lives. That’s something that no single building would ever be able to do, but these civic spaces and landscape have a very unique ability to do.

I firmly believe that until MASS Design Group came along, this kind of design had always [been] and would always be relegated to a kind of special occasion, do-gooder piece of the puzzle, and it was never considered on par with the quality of design we saw mainstream professionals producing. [In] 2009, when [MASS Design Group] unveiled the Butaro Hospital, here was a building (and a landscape) that was so markedly different from anything Architecture for Humanity or Public Architecture had done. It was a large-scale building, built in a very remote area. Very importantly, it had an operating partner that was committed for a long haul [and] was directly involved in its creation. They and other firms have shown that work like this can be done at a quality and at a scale that is on par with, if not better than, what’s happening in mainstream practice through fee-generating projects.

Bait Ur Rouf Mosque in Dhaka, Bangladesh, by Marina Tabassum Architects. Photo by Rajesh Vora/Aga Khan Trust for Culture.

What would your advice be to designers who are looking to push upstream and deal with the public policy and politics that affect their projects?

It goes back to the old adage that all politics are local. I always encourage young designers to start where they are.

I actually don’t think that we need any more nonprofit organizations that advocate for or do this kind of design. When people would come to us when I was at Public Architecture and say, “We want to start an organization like yours,” you don’t actually need to start an organization to do this work. If you’re a professional within a firm, you can do it right there, leveraging far greater resources than any nonprofit.

We may have some instinct about what is needed from local policy, but until you really dig in deep with some of the groups that are already working on these issues, it’s going to be a lot of speculation. We found some great examples of projects like the Atlanta BeltLine, where it did start out with the instincts of a designer and a planner, but it was very quickly married with a lot of local expertise [and] political heft from the city council.

The Atlanta BeltLine in Atlanta by Perkins+Will, the Atlanta BeltLine Partnership, and other partners. Photo by Valdis Zusmanis, ASLA.

There are only a few nonwestern architects in the book practicing in their own countries. How far away are we from having a deep well of native, nonwestern architects executing high-quality projects in their own cultures?

We see, through the example of Christian Benimana, this Rwandan architect who is the head of the African Design Centre, that there are very few people from outside the United States practicing in their native context, and yet initiatives like the African Design Center are seeking to change that. There was a symposium that MASS Design Group organized with the African Design Center in May, and it had a dozen and a half of the most prominent African architects (David Adjaye, Francis Kéré, and others), and not a single one of them had been educated in Africa. [So] I see that program as having the potential to create a new generation of practitioners. That’s one of the next frontiers of this work.

The Cottages at Hickory Crossing in Dallas, by bcWORKSHOP, Central Dallas CDC, and other partners. Photo by Skyler Fike.

Zach Mortice is a Chicago-based design journalist who focuses on landscape architecture and architecture. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram

2 thoughts on “Design for Dignity”

  1. Really interesting interview, interesting from a European perspective that it seems that there is a convergence between third world poverty and US poverty, the solutions to both seeming to sit in part in better architecture and better design of public spaces

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