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Above image: Tina Hovsepian presenting her ‘Cardborigami’ homeless shelter prototype in New York: a relatively facile ‘high-visibility’ exercise that lacks deep sensitivity to urban homelessness. Image source: archinect.com
Pro bono work in the building profession has largely been defined by its effects. There is a general enthusiasm about the types of services architects can offer in response to crisis, new innovations and products that make observable improvements to society, and extracurricular programs that allow designers to engage in on-the-ground ‘real-world’ experiences. Images of rural revitalisation, temporary crisis shelters, non-for-profit artist studios and prefabricated structures instantly come to mind. Yet there has not nearly been enough discussion about the side-effects of pro bono project procurement on architecture itself. Here are several overlooked side-effects which, if left unaddressed, may devalue the type, size, quality and integrity of what gets built under the banner of pro bono publico.
The arts and culture sector has become by far the largest recipient of pro bono work, in comparison to other sectors such as poverty-line health, education and sanitation. It is most desirable for obvious reasons: exciting programmatic briefs, artistic flexibility, high-profile clients and opportunities for paid future work. Not-for-profit organisations and other funding groups also have a big say in prioritising certain needs over others. The biases in agenda, however slight, may create inequitable access to public service – an irony given the original purposes of pro bono work. Are other areas of society being evaded because they do not appeal to prevailing trends, offer attractive design outcomes or expose designers to prospective clients?
To compensate for free services architects often seek visibility in return, choosing projects that provide publicity, public interest and portfolio diversity. While a logical, mutually beneficial business move, it may subconsciously direct design outcomes towards more heroic architectural gestures, grabbing aesthetics, and ambitious scales of impact. Looking in contrast at the disciplines of law and medicine, practitioners engage in pro bono work for ethical reasons regardless of its reciprocity. Yet in the field of design where self-promotion reigns, one begins to question the designer’s highest motives for engaging in pro bono work. Would architects still do good if no one was watching?
Limited brief and distance from site
Many overseas or rural projects undertaken on a pro bono basis are at risk of alienation, as they are often situated in distant locations where communities and end-users have minimal contact (if any) with the decision-makers of design. This general paucity of contextual information is particularly troubling in global non-for-profit competitions, where designers are often oblivious to the social, cultural, religious and traditional nuances of their site, relying instead on aesthetics, clever details and value for money in order to get built.
With the exception of repeat client work, long-term partnerships or ongoing research, many designers treat pro bono as discrete ‘one-off’ exercises – a limiting and potentially crippling way of offering public service. To overcome this, alternative models of pro bono practice have emerged: regular volunteer dispatch programs, peer-to-peer collaborations and collectives, mentorships and even design think-tanks in partnership with universities – all endeavours that establish continuity in the pro bono arena.
Due to the non-billable nature of pro bono work, time spent on pre-design research and site investigations is greatly reduced. Architects are realistically only able to commit a limited number of unpaid hours; as a result the depth of research suffers. How do architects avoid oversimplifying problems and ensure the element of knowledge transfer is not lost in the constraints of time? Future-proofing is a vital component of any humanitarian outreach. In Australia, numerous projects have succeeded in exchanging foreign and local wisdoms, sharing new construction skills with communities and sourcing materials locally. Locals are equipped to independently adapt, manage and multiply the project long after volunteer organisations have left the site – effectively extending its lifespan far beyond the time initially spent by the architect.
As urban crises and global problems become increasingly complex and volatile, the ‘good intentions’ of designers and philanthropists alone are not adequate measures of a project’s success. Instead of shrinking back from further humanitarian involvement, what can architects do to mitigate and reshape the shortfalls of this current model? This is where many passionate Australian architects are paving the way with close-range participatory design and authentic, unprejudiced community engagements. By being cognisant of the sociocultural implications of such work, we are far better equipped to translate our well-meaning intentions into effective, enduring and more egalitarian architectures.
Article by ADR contributor Amelyn Ng.