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Book Review: Design for Good

October 26, 2017

In Design for Good: A New Era of Architecture for Everyone, John Cary has written one of the most consequential books yet for people who are concerned with the future of the built environment in the 21st century.

In full disclosure, I know John and have had glimpses into this project at different phases during the book’s development. Even with that foreknowledge, I am surprised by the gravity of the document he has created. Many of the projects and people cataloged in this text will be new to readers, but in time are poised to become foundational figures in the next generation of design leadership.

To understand where Design for Good is coming from, you need to understand the author. Cary is perfectly situated to write this book. In some ways, the author is like a contemporary Philip Johnson, who was one of the most influential architects of the 20th century. Johnson managed to bridge a deep understanding of architectural currents with a leading cultural institution of his day, the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It was at MoMA that Johnson curated major shows at watershed moments in architecture, introducing the US to major design figures from Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe in the 1930s to Zaha Hadid and Rem Koolhaas in the 1980s. Instead of MoMA, Cary curated for TED, giving the architects he believes in, like Michael Murphy and Jeanne Gang, a powerful global platform through which to share their work.

Aside from public advocacy, Johnson worked behind the scenes to help get commissions and academic appointments to encourage the careers of those he felt passionate about backing. Cary also works on behalf of others in certain scenes called out in the book, both advising and networking to help advance the careers of emerging practitioners. Design for Good itself is yet another example of Cary’s ability to advocate for the architects he believes the world need give more due attention.

While the similarities between Cary and Johnson are interesting, the differences are far more instructive and point to profound shifts that are at work in architecture as we move further away from 20th century thinking and deeper into the still-nascent 21st century.

The main difference between the two is focus. Johnson was a stylistic chameleon, continuously re-inventing himself to suit the fashion of the moment. Cary is the opposite. His body of work is a continuous refinement of one idea: how to make architecture available to the disadvantaged many rather than just the privileged few. Design for Good is the most promising statement to date in that evolutionary chain. To push it a step further, this book represents a new stage in architecture: the confluence of world-class design and “public interest” design.

Up until now, “public interest design” has functioned as the de facto conscious of a profession otherwise rather shameless in its behavior, working almost exclusively for society’s elite and leaving everyone else to fend for themselves. Johnson himself crassly quipped that, “architects are pretty much high-class whores.” In the last couple decades, a small, loosely organized, doggedly-determined group of architects emerged to push a new brand of architecture for the public good. This group was perpetually marginalized by the mainstream architecture gate-keepers, who viewed them as social workers first and designers second. In fairness to the architecture establishment, much of the early work of the public design movement was not first-rate and in some cases legitimized itself primarily with a sentiment of “social good” bordering on self-righteousness.

Design for Good shreds the choice between design excellence and societal good. The projects in this book are both world-class in terms of design quality and display an elevated social consciousness. Interestingly, the gap is closed from both sides. On one hand, you have renowned design talent, such as Michael Maltzan Architects and Studio Gang, who integrate public-interest design into much broader practices, while on the other side, you have emerging offices like MASS Design and Urban Rural Framework, whose identities were founded on work for public-interest clients. In each case, the projects themselves are exquisite buildings, rigorously detailed and beautifully constructed.

A second important way Cary is differentiated from Johnson is the stature assigned to the architects he profiles. In a Johnson exhibit at MoMA, the architects are presented as artists, and the observer is left to bask in their genius. Cary’s approach is exactly the opposite. In Design for Good, the author carefully profiles each project through multiple voices, including the client, the end-user, and, finally, the architect. From each side there is a refreshing amount of humility. This demystification effect is crucial to the purpose of the book. By popping the “genius” balloon, Cary reveals the process that brought these projects into being and gives the audience — whether you are client, end-user, or designer — a sense that buildings of this quality are within the reach of the disadvantaged many.

Cary does not stop short of providing a measure of clout. The book features several signs legitimizing its position as a work to be taken seriously: a foreword is written by Melinda Gates, endorsements come from a range of high profile leaders, and many of the designers featured are from Harvard. The presence of these names is a double-edged sword. While adding prestige, these heavyweights run the risk of discouraging people who lack connections and aren’t a product of an Ivy League design program. For the most part, this challenge is overcome if one reads past the cover, as Design for Good makes a strong case that wealth, power, and prestige are not necessary ingredients for making world-class architecture.

The final comparison between Cary and Johnson is their position in larger architecture culture. Johnson was the ultimate insider, who operated close to the center of the architecture universe throughout his career. For Johnson, innovation came from within the discipline. Cary has taken a much different path. He operates in something of a self-imposed exile, continually aligning himself with a broad, multi-disciplinary audience and promoting the benefits of design to the larger world. His focus seems to indicate a belief that real progress in architecture will come from outside the current architectural power centers.

In line with that theory, Design for Good seems aimed at a non-architecture audience. The book’s structure is journalistic and approachable. There are no drawings of plans, details, or diagrams. Photography in architecture books is notorious for excluding people so as not to distract from the formal reading of the building. In Design for Good, most of the photographs foreground people, allowing the built forms to recede into the background. Architecture is a scene rather than a character.

In the end, one is left with the impression that the buildings profiled here are more than assemblages or inert matter, skillfully negotiating the forces of gravity and the play of light and shadow. Cary carefully renders each project as a deep human story. This raises the question of whether the author has produced a book about architecture or social progress. The power of this book, and the great hope for the next chapter in the evolution of the practice of architecture, is that Design for Good is both.

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