Design for the Public Good with John Cary

On some level, we know when a space just “feels right.” Sometimes, we can attribute that “unsettled” feeling to a poorly designed space, but maybe we can’t quite put a finger on it, something is just not quite right. John Cary is acutely aware of a space when it has not been designed in service to the people that use the space. Not only is he interested in architecture and human-centric design, but also the culture of the architectural profession as a discipline in service to the public good.

An architect by trade, John became involved with the pro-bono movement early in his career. He wanted to explore the ways in which architecture can provide real solutions to social issues. His explorations eventually were compiled into a book: The Power of Pro Bono: 40 Stories about Design for the Public Good.

Paul Kim interviews Bend Design 2017 speaker, John Cary, as he shares his thoughts on architecture, social sustainability, and human-centered architectural design.

PK: What are some of your early influences that prompted you to be an architect focused on the public/philanthropy?

JC: My parents worked in service fields, specifically within healthcare, so it’s not surprising that I made service central to my chosen field. When I went into design, I genuinely believed that all design was intended to be for the public good, and it was a bit of a rude awakening to see the reality of that. I now do a lot of philanthropic work—advising individuals, foundations, and nonprofits globally—and see myself as more of an ambassador for design. While I always do it with a design lens, my work has expanded well beyond design in any traditional sense.

PK: In some of your commencement talks, you allude to a defining moment. Can you share what that defining moment was for you?

JC: I think we all have multiple defining moments. For me, it was probably visiting the Butaro Hospital in Rwanda for the first time. I was looking at and experiencing something built on a scale that “do-gooder designers” of my generation literally couldn’t have dreamed possible. The quality of construction was staggering, in a locale so remote that it didn’t even have electricity until the exact month that the hospital opened. It may explain why the work of MASS Design Group now constitutes roughly 40 percent of my new book.

PK: How would you say modern architecture is failing to serve the public? What are some examples where it is serving the public as it should?

JC: Beyond architecture or even a subset like modern architecture, I think architects are failing to serve the public, at least en masse. The worst examples of this are the AIA and licensing bodies, which narrowly define and limit the role of architects in society, very unnecessarily. And yet we see deeply innovative, civic-minded practices, like MASS Design Group, Studio Gang, David Baker Architects, Maltzan Architecture, Brooks Scarpa, Orkidstudio, Rural Urban Framework, and others who are creating truly great architecture both for and with the communities they’re engaging in.

PK: Can you share with us a favorite space you have transformed and how it affected the people that use that space?

JC: I don’t purport to be a designer of spaces in any traditional sense, outside of my home at least. I am, however, involved in non-design capacities with an array of projects globally. The most meaningful among them is the first-of-its-kind Maternity Waiting Village in rural Malawi, which I very improbably helped seed. It was built as an alternative to government-issued buildings, and brought to life by directors Patricia Gruits and Christian Benimana of MASS Design Group. It is the most stunning example of design’s ability to raise expectations and to dignify that I know of.

PK: Do you prefer speaking or writing as a medium for sharing your ideas about what public spaces should be and who they should serve? Which one satisfies you more?

JC: I am probably more naturally inclined to speak, though I most enjoy coaching people to tell their own stories and hosting events for TED, The Aspen Institute, and other entities; I get enough stage time myself. My wife is a journalist, so a huge part of my writing, though I’ve built some of my own strengths now in that area after years of practice. I especially love co-authoring pieces with her, as I’ve done several times now about diversity in the design professions, about the unbelievably bad design of breast pumps, etc. My real dream is to make a documentary about MASS Design Group and design generally; next to having people experience an actual place, I believe video is one of the best tools we have to capture the essence of a place—far more than words or even still images can.

PK: How do you see the profession evolving with the next generation of architects and designers?

JC: I am most encouraged by the work of—the nonprofit spinoff of design and innovation guru IDEO—and the interest that it has generated in “human-centered design.” The sheer numbers of people they are reaching through their popular training program is unprecedented, and far outpacing any school. The organization has invested significant resources in codifying its approach, producing guidebooks, case studies, and a wildly popular online course, which is uniquely paired with on-the-ground teamwork and experiences. When launched its online program in 2013, it had 13,000 registrants from around the world. Just three years later, in 2016, it had a staggering 62,000 from over one hundred countries. I’m sure the numbers for 2017 will only be more impressive.

PK: Tell us a little bit about the cohousing community you live in—the Temescal Community—in Oakland?

JC: My family and I are basically stumbled into a 9-unit cohousing community in the Temescal neighborhood of Oakland. We bought our 3-bedroom, 1.5 bath house in 2013, but the community of roughly 25 people had been around for over a decade at that point. It’s an incredible community, both in terms of the people as well as from a design standpoint. We couldn’t love it more. We all have our own houses, with all the amenities one would expect in a normal single-family house, though we share a communal laundry room. The community is largely solar-powered, and we also share a communal living room, dining room, bike shed, wood shop, courtyard, and a prolific garden. We share two meals per week (both optional), and have a monthly workday to maintain the property. Cohousing came to the U.S. a quarter-century ago, but has yet to really catch on here in any significant way. To put it in perspective, the country of Denmark has 700 cohousing communities, while the entire U.S. has just 160, though the number is growing.
Paul Kim is a marketing coordinator with Bend-based BBT Architects, a full-service commercial architectural firm that provides public and commercial design services.