Helping designers help their communities

Since its 2012 founding, the Institute for Public Architecture (IPA), a New York City–based nonprofit, has gained a reputation for innovative approaches to public interest design. I spoke with executive director Nadine Maleh.

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Give me a quick overview of the Institute for Public Architecture’s mission.

The IPA supports architects doing work related to social justice. Our remit is twofold: we help promote the importance of design excellence for the public, and we try to create more opportunities for architects to be at the decision making table earlier and more often.

I always felt as an architect that I was brought into the conversatiron only after the most important things had already been decided: you need X amount of units, this is the site. It’s very developer-driven. So the question is, how can we better utilize the particular expertise that architects have and get them in that conversation earlier?

A 2015 IPA exhibition asked visitors to consider the meaning of public.

And I should clarify — I’ve been told in the past that it’s really limiting to say “architect” because there are so many kinds of related professionals. So really I mean anyone that’s working at a certain scale within the built environment. The more people who are coming at these issues from their particular perspective the better. Talking with health professionals, planners — bringing all that knowledge together — is how we’re going to do something innovative.

The IPA started a summer residency program in 2014, and you were one of the first fellows, prior to being named executive director last spring. What did the fellowship entail?

Well, ultimately the goal of the residency is to give designers the space and time to work on a specific pressing urban issue and create an actionable, implementable project or prototype. So the work that’s created isn’t design for design’s sake alone. We want fellows to create thoughtful, viable solutions that we can work with the city to see realized. We’re really grounded in that marriage between design and policy — getting the designers to be thinking about policy and working with policymakers to utilize the expertise of the architects and designers.

2015 IPA symposium about housing in New York

The prior residency looked specifically at public housing. The work that my fellow fellows and I did really helped bridge the gap between architects and designers that were thinking about this issue and NYCHA [the New York City Housing Authority]. One outcome of that has been a really close relationship between the IPA and the housing authority. We’re continuing to have conversations with them to see how we can help the public housing development process. And by that I don’t necessarily mean just new construction, but also existing NYCHA developments: thinking about how designers can be a solution on the operating side as well.

And you’re now taking applications for this year’s residency. How will that differ from the last one?

Yes — applications are due April 8! This year’s theme is Live/Work for the Workforce. We’re really focusing on the affordability of living and working in the city. We’re looking specifically in New York City, but that’s an issue that most urban centers are facing. People are getting pushed further and further out of urban centers because of high rents, and there aren’t affordable places for people to work, to start their own businesses.

city map

IPA research into educational resources in New York City

A lot of people do work and live in the same place, and that’s fine as long as it’s a home office. But if you’re an entrepreneur in light manufacturing — an artist, or a furniture maker where you need special equipment like routers or a table saw — live/work spaces don’t exist, at least not in any legal sense. So we’re looking at the marriage of the two, thinking about particular sites where there could be both an affordable work component and an affordable housing component.

In New York City we’re specifically looking at M1 sites, which are parcels of land zoned for light manufacturing. On M1 sites you are allowed to develop light manufacturing and you’re also allowed to develop hotels, but you’re not allowed to develop permanent housing. We’re working with the city planning department to think of innovative ways to develop live/work spaces on these lots.

Design is for people who think they can’t afford design.

Can you give me an example of an outcome from last year’s residency that you think sets the tone for the upcoming session?

Three of the other fellows, Miriam Peterson, Nathan Rich, and Sagi Golan, focused their project on the size of a parking lot, 9’ by 18’. They delved into the issues of parking requirements and how underutilized spots can be utilized as resources within public housing campuses. Their proposal was written up in the New York Times, and they’ve had plenty of conversations with NYCHA.

The New York Times article was important because part of the IPA’s mission is to highlight that design excellence is happening in the public realm, and that it’s important, and that this kind of development really should be design-driven. There’s a larger design public that isn’t necessarily thinking about public housing as an asset, so getting this message out there is important. Design isn’t just for the 1%, and it affects all of our public spaces. Design is for people who think they can’t afford design — and having these kind of ideas in mainstream media allows us to change the conversation.

All the important decisions about physical interventions in our cities shouldn’t just be in the hands of the developers. They have to take all these different forces into account — design, scale, affordability.

 

Questions or comments for Nadine Maleh? Email nadine@the-ipa.org and follow #NYCLiveWork for updates on the residency program.

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