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Review> The Good Fight
John Cary collects stories from architects and their clients in his new book The Power of Pro Bono.
Chan Krieger Sieniewicz's Greater Boston Food Bank.
Courtesy Metropolis Books

The Good Fight
The Power of Pro Bono: 40 Stories about Design for the Public Good by Architects and Their Clients
Edited by John Cary, foreword by Majora Carter, and preface by John Peterson
Metropolis Books, $40

If you came of age architecturally in the 1970’s like I did, you deeply believed in the power of design to fix the world’s woes. But somewhere, between the stair details requests for information, and client presentations your chosen profession became… a job. The Power of Pro Bono, rediscovers some sense of the idealism that was the reason so many of us chose to be architects in the first place.

The book examines with illustrations the results of Public Architecture, the nonprofit Cary once ran, which encourages architects to consider performing pro bono design work. Both Cary and John Peterson, founder of Public Architecture, have penned an opening pair of essays that compellingly explore the concept of pro bono. If you read nothing but those two essays, you’d have enough ideas to cause you to reexamine your own place in the profession.

The heart of the book, forty stories of completed pro bono projects, is a collection of photographic enticement and prose engagement. Not only do we see these projects well photographed, but we get the thoughts of the architects and clients in the accompanying text. How often do clients get to talk directly to the design community about their building project?

39571 Project by SHoP Architects.

39571 Project by SHoP Architects in Mississippi.

The projects, spanning the range of building types, are located across America and were designed by both large and small firms. The 39571 Project, with its broad sweeping roof overhangs designed by SHoP Architects in Katrina-torn Mississippi, is reminiscent of the great practitioner of social architecture, Samuel Mockbee. Fans of Bay Area architect David Baker will find his acclaimed Tassfaronga mixed-use housing project in Oakland designed for Habitat for Humanity. Big firms like Gensler are here as well: their KIPP Academy Campus in Houston exhibits an industrial aesthetic not normally expected from the company.

Implied is the idea that the architecture profession should be making a positive contribution to society at large. While on its surface that is not a radical concept, the history of building and urban design in America is rife with examples of negative impacts. One would be hard-pressed to think of a more destructive series of projects than the Urban Renewal of the 1950’s and 60’s with its Pruitt-Igoe’s and Cabrini-Green’s.

Cary has not given us a definitive answer to how architects can achieve greater purpose and meaning in our professional practice. In an era where climate change, deep recession, and high unemployment reign, we will be expected to answer how we, as designers, builders, and planners, will shape home, neighborhood, city, and country for the greater good. The final answers are not in this book; what is found within its pages are the questions and glimpses from forty architects and clients who are doing some of the work that will be necessary for our future.

George Calys

George Calys is an architect and writer living in San Francisco.