Have you ever wondered what motivated or how did the figure of the public defender start? Ann Lui & Craig Reschke, founding partners at Future Firm, did when they were invited to contribute to last year's exhibition organized by the Chicago Architecture Foundation: “Between States”; this exhibition asked 50 local design offices to share “community-based design solutions to transform underappreciated and underperforming spaces in Chicago into rejuvenated civic anchors”. While Ann and Craig imagined what kind of projects other offices were going to submit and populate this exhibition, they thought this would be a great opportunity to expand the conversation and ask what other kind of civic assets could be responsive to universal human rights such as the right to adequate housing? That’s how the Office of the Public Architect started – what resources as a society do we agree to provide in order to support social equity, safety and justice?: “When you commit a crime, if you cannot afford a lawyer, you have the right to a Public Defender. When issued a building violation, should you also have the right to a Public Architect?”
Does the idea of an Office of the Public Architect sound “absurd”? In the late 1800s, the New York Times called the idea of the office of the public defender, proposed by lawyer Clara Foltz (1849–1934), “absurd.” Today, the public defender is a crucial and foundational component of the US legal system. In 1963 Gideon v. Wainwright cemented that states must provide legal counsel for those that cannot afford their own. However, Clara Foltz, the first female lawyer on the west coast, proposed the idea 70 years earlier. Foltz believed that the public defender's office should be a counterweight to the prosecutor's office, with equal funding and stature: “The law should be a shield, as well as a sword.” Similarly the Office of the Public Architect could serve as as a counterweight to the Department of Buildings, working on behalf of Chicago’s citizens through collective investment in the city’s architecture.
Ann shared a little more of the backstory of this project. “This is what I thought of the kind of architecture practice I would have when we founded Future Firm in 2015”, says Ann referring to a dreamy villa project that they designed in Sweden. The projects that actually happened at the start were among the following:
Building violations (tuck point brick, repair parapet, repair porch or bring up to code.
“Post-construction construction drawings” (stop work orders, permitting unpermitted work, etc)
Single-family home owner, no design work (small changes, moving walls, etc.)
Past the point of not return (basement is too low, but wants basement unit, etc.)
People who want/need architect but can’t afford.
Many of the buildings that they visited had multiple building code violations – and yet people were inhabiting these spaces. They noticed not only the unsafe physical conditions, but also the negative public health impact of these spaces. Ann recalls sometimes feeling even quite uncomfortable during site visits with landlords that had not even informed their tenants in advance about an inspection: “It just didn’t feel right”. These moments of unethically/uncomfortable situations, were also critical opportunities to reflect on observations about the built environment, and the quality of living conditions that these generate – and for whom. These moments also brought a level of awareness in their work – and they wanted to know more. Furthermore, they wanted to explore how architecture might have more agency in this matter.
Their research found that in 2016, the City of Chicago, through building inspectors issued over 36,000 violations; by 2017 this number was up to 90,000. While Ann didn’t specify, it’s probably fair to assume that most of these building violations are homes and are located in underserved and poor neighborhoods. Building code violations adds another layer of complexity to the current research about economic burden in low-income communities or communities of color that are being disproportionately impacted by public debt. From the social justice perspective, this research might need to be expanded rapidly to the built realm – multiple or consistent building violations lead to building condemnation, and consequently displacement of residents. If residents do not have the resources to hire the services of an architect and address the necessary repairs are at risk of losing their homes and/or becoming homeless. This project also rises other interesting questions from the urban planning perspective: as we move away from the era of public housing, how do we support and what resources do we provide as a society to ensure housing as a human right for everyone? A proposal for an Office of the Public Architect starts to address that aspect by asking broader questions of values, resources allocation and accountability: "do we collectively agree on a safe and humane built environment for all—then what is the agency of architecture to affect this vision?"
While Ann recognizes this is not and issue that can be resolved only from the practice of architecture (it’s also involves aspects of governance, public administration, public safety, public health, civic technology, social justice), she thinks it’s important to bring attention and possible responses by the architecture community. While uncertain of how this project will evolve, Ann also says “we have a few thoughts about how to continue that respond to three time scales:
Short-term: Share the list of resources that we already assembled.
Mid-term: Place that offers both design service and technical assistance to navigate the process.
Long-term: If there really was an office of the public architect, it needs to be something broader, and to be more of a center of advocacy of issues in the built environment; people deserve to live in healthy and safe homes."
We are thankful and inspired by the Office of the Public Architect – in fact, one of our projects at City Open Workshop was highly inspired on it – the Office of Land Management; the work group discusses constantly the needs for a double-sided approach: public policy recommendations and community-led action enabled by good and accessible communication/learning tools (whether is a shared google doc or a pamphlet). We look forward to see how these projects evolve and demonstrate their capacity of design agency.
You can read more about the Office of the Public Architect published by Next City (October 16, 2017).