Monday, February 28, 2011

Book Review: The Power of Pro Bono

The Power of Pro Bono: 40 Stories About Design for the Public Good by Architects and Their Clients edited by John Cary and Public Architecture
Metropolis Books 2010
Hardcover, 288 pages

In writings on architecture, particularly contemporary collections, the voice of the client is often missing. Some articles may incorporate quotes from the client about the positive experience and results, but for the most part the architect's point of view prevails. This can be chalked up to the fact that the venues, be they print or online, are typically for promoting architects and architecture, and their audiences tend to be the same practitioners, eager to look at what others are doing. Therefore to give equal copy to a client alongside an architect in coverage of a project would be pretty novel these days. It would also run the risk of painting the architecture in not-so-nice a light, bringing to the fore considerations that were not attended to by the architect, for example. But a more important consequence is that projects are then presented as what they actually are: group efforts that balance the client-side and design-side towards the "final" result.

This collection of 40 projects is the first book I've seen that puts the architect's and the client's words side by side. It makes sense that the projects are focused on pro bono work, many arising from The 1%, a program started by co-editor Public Architecture that asks participating architects to devote at least 1% of their time to pro bono clients and projects. The program's success is certainly evident in the projects presented here. Yet there exists a skepticism or even antipathy towards doing pro bono work, something this book aims at overcoming. The creative responses to the varied, and in many cases nonprofit clients is refreshing, an antidote to the notion that architects bring their "B-game" to projects without a commission. In many cases this stems from an enthusiastic client who is excited to have an architect generously devoting his or her time towards their mission. In this regard the architect has a client sympathetic to pushing the envelope on design (within a most likely small budget, of course). So architects can approach pro bono work by simultaneously experimenting and furthering their design skills and expanding their portfolio with quality architecture that also serves a strong social purpose.

In addition to the 40 projects collected here in six chapters based on building type, the book includes essays by John Cary and John Peterson that effectively argue for doing pro bono work and helping architects figure out how to do it. These are important, even necessary contributions to the book, but they would lose their effectiveness without the quality architecture they bookend. Some standouts from each chapter include Prospect.1 by Eskew+Dumez+Ripple (Arts), 39571 Project by SHoP Architects (Civic, also gracing the book's cover), Lavezzorio by Studio Gang Architects (Community), the L!brary Initiative by various architects (Education), Planned Parenthood by Fougeron Architecture (Health), and the various contributions to Make It Right in New Orleans (Housing).