December 18, 2009
  Rose Fellowship Immerses Young Architects in Community Design Activism
Work with community development agencies unleashes design skills for those most in need

by Zach Mortice
Associate Editor

Summary: No other building type has surpassed affordable housing’s status as an architecture that speaks so directly to architects’ professional mission of social healing while often offering such disappointing results. Examples of public housing that are monolithic, overcrowded, scaless, and faceless are sadly common and occasionally infamous, like the Pruitt-Igoe projects in St. Louis and Cabrini Green in Chicago.

The New Carver Apartments in Los Angeles, designed by Michael Maltzan Architecture. Image courtesy of Skid Row Housing Trust.

The New Carver Apartments in Los Angeles, designed by Michael Maltzan Architecture. Image courtesy of Skid Row Housing Trust.

In some cases, the poor records these buildings have assembled is a result of designers’ lack of communication, empathy, and interaction with their end users—the low-income residents that will occupy them. Too often, public housing became a field of design social experimentation and top-down planning from architects riding high on mid-century Modernism, proposing and building designs that were poorly suited to residents’ priorities and desires. Any commercial architect past or present can list 101 reasons that you must know your client inside and out, but truly internalizing this message has been a work in progress in affordable housing design.

The Rose Fellowship is one opportunity to help young architects use their design skills to help low-income communities in comprehensive, community-based ways. Founded by the estate of developer and philanthropist Frederick Rose, the fellowship has paired young architects with local community housing and development agencies to help them create affordable housing and other facilities for low-income Americans since 2000.

Established as a part of the national affordable housing non-profit Enterprise Community Partners, the fellowship selects a handful of young architects each year and pays for them to assist in the design and development of affordable housing, community and education centers, and neighborhood masterplans for three years. The only prerequisite for the program is that each potential fellow have a professional architecture degree.

Jessy Olson, Assoc. AIA, a recent graduate from the University of Oregon, has seen the value of everyday interaction with the community she’s designing for. Her Rose Fellowship project is to assist the Farmworker Housing Development Corporation renovate a 90-unit affordable housing development in Woodburn, Ore., built for Hispanic immigrant agricultural workers. She’s also assisting in the design and development of a new 40-unit property.

Her office is on the building site, and her day-to-day interactions with residents have provided design insights she could not have gotten anywhere else. Olson says she’s learned to place more emphasis on outdoor public spaces (like plazas, patios, courtyards, playgrounds, etc.) because the immigrant residents of the Nuevo Amanecer housing development use them very intensely for many different purposes. She’s learned to provide large formal spaces for traditional religious celebrations and small informal spaces where residents can chat while hanging up laundry and work in a communal garden. “It’s literally about planting seeds in a new place that helps you identify with that new place and helps you feel comfortable,” she says.

Change agents
Rose Fellowship executive director Katie Swenson, a former Rose Fellow herself, says that the program is looking for architects that know how to use “design skills to empower low-income communities. We’re really looking for instigators –people who are activists in their approach. The fellows who do the best are the ones that know how to pull difference pieces together to really be a change agent.”

Swenson says her path towards progressive, socially minded design was set in motion by a studio at the University of Virginia taught by AIA Gold Medal recipient Samuel Mockbee, founder of the Auburn University Rural Studio and a torch bearer of affordable community design. That experience “changed my life,” she says. “There were very few points of light like that at the time.”

Before Rose Fellows are dispatched on their three-year partnerships, they go through a two month application process where they send in portfolios and professional recommendations. Swenson uses Enterprises’ web of associated community and housing non-profits to find partners for the fellows. Rose Fellowship finalists meet with the community organization they might be paired with, and the agency makes the final decision on who to bring on.

From 2003-06, Jess Zimbabwe, AIA, was paired with the Eastside Arts Alliance, a socialist arts collective in Oakland. Her primary responsibility was to help them renovate and redesign the Eastside Community Cultural Center. Its goal is to offer local children from low-income and minority families education and enrichment opportunities that can divert them from crime and gang activity. These programs had previously been scattered across several locations which weren’t designed for use by a non-profit education and community center.

Zimbabwe was in charge of redesigning the interiors of an existing building. Her first priorities were public gallery spaces that would better allow the community to interact with the education center and view students’ work. She also worked with the architect of record (Okamoto-Saijo Architecture) to design a sound recording studio and a print making studio. The Eastside building had already been partially renovated by a developer that wanted to turn it into loft apartments.

But there was still much work to be done. Zimbabwe found herself wearing many hats not typically associated with an architectural fellowship. “I’ll be honest—I didn’t exactly know what I was doing,” she says. “They needed architectural support, but they needed a lot of realty development support as well.” To get the project paid for, Zimbabwe says she had to cobble together 18 separate sources of funding from state and local programs, all a few hundred thousand dollars a time, “if that.” To simply hold a community meeting, she had to enlist translators that spoke eight different languages.

Now complete, the Eastside community center reaffirms the cultural worth of its place, regardless of the income, race, and ethnicity of its neighborhood. “Arts and culture are really powerful for communities because it’s an asset that diverse and low-income communities have, and it’s not frequently counted by cities and agencies,” Zimbabwe says. “To give people a place to deliver and share that art and culture allows them to think of it as an asset.”

Skid Row Housing Trust
Theresa Hwang began her Rose Fellowship just a few months ago, and she was matched with the Skid Row Housing Trust in Los Angeles, which builds and manages low-income housing for the recently homeless. The Housing Trust currently maintains 22 buildings and some 1,200 housing units. Hwang’s main project is to assist in the renovation of the Simone Hotel. This building is being converted from single-room occupancy units with shared bathrooms into full studio apartment style units. Hwang is investigating sustainable design features and considering how to turn eight residential units into space for social services, a common trend in contemporary affordable housing design. A bridge from the Simone Hotel will connect to an adjacent Skid Row Housing Trust property that will have a green roof.

“Providing open green space in the middle of Skid Row is kind of rare,” says Hwang, who graduated from the Harvard Graduate School of Design in 2007.

For this project, Hwang is assessing programmatic needs and considering mechanical systems retrofitting, and hasn’t yet delved into a general design scheme, though she has been working with the building’s original architect, Koning Eizenberg Architecture. Hwang also assisted with completing the construction of the 97-unit New Carver Apartments designed by Michael Maltzan, FAIA. She says she hopes opportunities like the Rose Fellowship can “[blur] the boundary between [design] firms and [non-profit] organizations,” and make this kind of cross-collaboration more common.

Bringing young architects into their own
Each Rose Fellows’ tenure has given them a blunt look at the challenges of developing sustainable housing. To begin with, they say funding and subsidies for sustainable building products and systems lag far behind their popularity. “There needs to be more money to allow these systems from the get-go, because a lot of times that tends to be what gets value engineered out of projects, and I feel like that’s the most important thing to keep in terms of the longevity of the project,” Hwang says.

Olson lists the problems that rural low-income housing projects tend to face, like reduced civic funding and a small non-profit community to support such efforts.

Zimbabwe says that affordable housing funding is often too dispersed and restrictive. “When each different piece of funding has its own specific regulations and rules and ways you can spend it and timelines for spending it, it makes it incredibly challenging,” she says.

Several of the Rose Fellows say the experience gave them real word development skills they likely would not have gotten in a more traditional career path. After being placed in a fellowship, young architects do far more than design buildings. They raise money for projects, get permits, conduct post-occupancy surveys, and generally deal with the entire non-profit facility design and construction process. “I got to see the politics of development and [how] projects really come together in a different way than I would have if I had just gone to work and been the most junior person at an architecture firm,” Zimbabwe says.

“It’s been really crazy to see how many different disciplines are actually involved in this,” Hwang says. “It’s a really great cross-section of what actually happens, whereas if I just stayed at an architecture firm I’d only get a small sliver of what actually happened.”

Hwang has been meeting with contractors, talking to energy efficiency consultants, inviting social service providers into the project, working out property management issues, and raising money. “That’s been the biggest learning process,” she says. “As architects, you don’t really learn that in school.”

Zimbabwe says that older architects are often reluctant to give younger designers the opportunity to take broad control over a single project like the Rose Fellowship does, and this may be why there are so few programs like it exist. “We’re not very honest about what young architect’s can bring to the table,” she says.

Certainly there are many types of fellowships and programs that send aspiring doctors to Sub-Saharan Africa, or send young lawyers to South America, but there is still a desperate, gaping need for community design skills in impoverished places, domestically and internationally. Groups like Architecture for Humanity and Public Architecture (as well as architects like Larry Scarpa, AIA, and Mike Pyatok, FAIA) are often lonely voices calling out for the empowerment of poor communities through design.

There are more of these kinds of opportunities now than there used to be, Hwang says, but “it’s still a small circle because you keep hearing the same names over and over again.” Her theory on why architecture has lagged behind other professions in charitable low-income community support: Design is often perceived as a rarified and lofty “bonus” reserved for the upper reaches of the social strata and is simply not meant for the budget-ruled push and pull of affordable housing. This attitude is often what allowed subpar, ill-conceived, and ultimately dysfunctional housing projects to be built in the first place. The influence of the Rose Fellows’ work will determine if the disastrous myth that design isn’t absolutely integral to the health and function of communities is allowed to continue.

“Architects can and should have a much larger role,” Swenson says, “not just in housing policy, but in urban policy.”

Trend or movement
During her time at Harvard, Hwang says she saw enthusiasm in socially minded design expand dramatically. Swenson says she’s seen a similar acceleration of interest. “In the 10 years that I’ve been doing this, the whole world has really transformed around this issue,” she says. “The young architects that I meet don’t want to practice anything else.”

Olson is not so sure. “I think it’s still sort of considered this sort of hippy fringe sector of architecture, which doesn’t make any sense to me because housing is so basic and such a tenant of architecture,” she says.

Since last year’s economic crash and the subsequent deep design and construction industry recession, younger architects do seem to exhibit more interest in using their design skills to help those that are less fortunate, reaffirming architecture’s role as the definitive democratic art form. There’s currently a design media narrative that says this interest in social impact architecture is a rejection of the formally extravagant designs of years past, now considered too expensive and hubristic for such a time of penitent restraint.

Because architecture moves slowly (especially in a severe recession), it’s difficult to tell if this is an established movement or a media-generated trend. If it is real, architects’ penitence will bring rewards of better designed communities to those that need it the most—the poor, disabled, disadvantaged—after experiencing a small amount of their economic insecurity.


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