As the sun sets and shadows fall over the corner of Grand and Olive Street in downtown St. Louis, a former Woolworth store that stood hopelessly vacant for years emerges as a beacon of light. Buses and cars buzz by noisily, yet, on approach, one’s eyes are drawn solely to the vibrant signage adorning this now-majestic building and the activity inside.
Ahead is a magnet for youth and teens. It’s not a Juicy Couture or Abercrombie & Fitch clothier, nor a movie theater, arcade, or any of the other usual suspects. This, instead, is the dazzling new home of a chapter of nonprofit Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, a more than 100-year-old youth mentoring organization.
Through a mix of color, playfulness, and restraint, this is a space that dignifies. Fully integrating the staff and youth spaces, rather than separating them, the design uniquely blurs the line between the server and the served. It is not patronizing for its young and sometimes too-cool visitors. Nor does it understate the commitment that the organization’s staff members make to their chosen cause. None of this happened by accident; it was a deliberate act.
This project is a prime example of socially responsible design, and not just because it recently clinched one of the top prizes in Contract’s second annual Inspirations Awards; rather, because it literally transformed a blighted corner and a vacant building into state-of-the-art headquarters for an organization that changes lives. This project exemplifies that good causes deserve good spaces. It is at once an example of socially responsible design and a model for design generally.
The project was undertaken by Perkins+Will, which in 2008 launched a first-of-its-kind, firm-wide Social Responsibility Initiative (SRI). The initiative places social responsibility alongside the firm’s stated commitments to design excellence, practice excellence, and excellence in sustainable design, providing a platform for no-fee and reduced-fee services, the latter of which made the Big Brothers Big Sisters space possible.
To forecast the future of social responsibility in the design fields, we can look to the present efforts of both large firms like Perkins+Will as well as smaller practices. The main gathering space for this cross-section of firms is “The 1%” pro bono program of Public Architecture. If more than 750 design firms and an estimated $25 million in pro bono design services represent the present, or the status quo, we can have high hopes for the future of social responsibility. We can look ahead to the day that the quantities expressed in those aforementioned and growing numbers are outpaced by a focus on quality.
Social responsibility is arguably the most feel-good but least sexy of the five topics discussed in the future essays presented in these pages. It is difficult to pinpoint a sense of “responsibility” as being a significant motivator for this type of work, but not at all difficult to understand the social aspects that fuel this kind of work. Indeed, in a recent survey of more than 500 design firms by Harvard Business School, an overwhelming majority of respondents cited giving back to one’s community, social relevance, and personal satisfaction as primary motivators of respondents’ social responsibility work.
The key, if it is to shape the future of practice, is for social responsibility to draw on the same tried-and-true practices that designers employ to realize their fee-generating projects. It avoids positioning design “for good” outside of or separate from design excellence, as has been the case over time.
The late, great architect Samuel Mockbee once said, “If architecture is going to nudge, cajole, and inspire a community to challenge the status quo into making responsible changes, it will take the subversive leadership of academics and practitioners who keep reminding us of the profession’s responsibilities.” Assuming Mockbee’s proclamation extends to all forms of design, we are arguably beyond the need for subversion.
A glance at some past Designers of the Year provides some insight. Whether a high design firm like GRAFT rounding up world-renowned designers to work beside them in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, or David Rockwell’s firm designing both the Oscars stage set and libraries for under-resourced public schools throughout New York City, it is no wonder that social responsibility has risen to a status deemed on par with these other four topics identified by Contract as shaping the future of practice.
Social responsibility must not, however, subsist as little more than a byproduct of our down economy, where doing good and feeling good have become stand-ins for big budgets and other measures of success. Instead, it must be celebrated, critiqued, and the centerpiece of all design practices, now and into the future.
John Cary is executive director of Public Architecture and editor of "The Power of Pro Bono: 40 Stories by Clients and Their Architects."