arch-peace editorials

14 December 2011

Pro Bono Publico

Recently I had the opportunity to be involved in a pro bono project for the charity Tong-Len. Their mission is to assist displaced communities in the Kangra Valley in north India to achieve a secure and sustainable future through a range of educational and health-based projects. Initially I was asked provide a sketch design for a hostel building accommodating more than 60 children who come from a local slum camp in Dharamsala. It quickly became apparent that the local ‘architect-engineer’ employed to progress the project was in fact the contractor and that further architectural services would be required. My partner in practice, Ryan Strating, became involved and for the last three years we have seen the project through to its completion and its inauguration by His Holiness the Dalai Lama last month.

In this editorial I would like to unpack some of my dilemmas around my experience of undertaking pro bono work, particularly within an intercultural context. This was prompted by a recent study into ethical agency and communication within community development and pro bono work by two final year students at the University of Tasmania.[1] One of the students interviewed me for my reactions to a range of provocations, two of which were particularly confronting:

  1. Do you think some architects are motivated to undertake Pro Bono and CommunityDevelopment because mainstream practice does not allow the same level of creativity?
  2. Do you think some architects are under the illusion that people in ‘other’ countries needour design services, when it might just be financial support that is necessary?[2]
I will come back to these questions more directly later. First, I will address the more general issue underpinning these provocations - the relationship between self-interest and altruistic motivations. As John Peterson, founder of Public Architecture, argues, “All generous acts involve similarly self-serving motives”.[3] Rather than lament this contention from a puritanical position, Peterson actively promotes the personal benefits – whether assuaging guilt or creating business opportunities. He sees them as a means to encourage the architecture profession to engage more extensively and systematically in pro bono work.

In an effort to advance pro bono work within the profession, Public Architecture launched the ‘1% program’ in 2005. This was designed to encourage practices to dedicate 1% of their time (a nominal figure) to pro bono projects. Despite this, the extent, or at least the visibility, of pro bono projects within the profession remains marginal. Type the words ‘pro bono’ into a search engine and without close inspection you would be convinced that it was a legal term. Unlike the legal framework for pro bono services, the majority of architecture projects are undertaken in an ‘ad hoc’ manner with work ‘fitted in’ around the priorities of commercial architectural practice. Thus a further agenda of Public Architecture is to advocate for the formalisation of pro bono services. Initiatives include ensuring clarity of purpose and commitments through contracts, invoices for time and, most importantly, maintaining pro bono services as part of core business rather than additional workload. This is easier to achieve in theory than in practice, particularly for small businesses.

In our case, the work was undertaken very much on an ad hoc basis – I did the initial sketch design for the project while on maternity leave and the detail design, documentation and advice during construction were fitted in between the hectic schedules of full time work and family. I was never able to visit the site (until the inauguration) and Ryan only went once at a critical point during construction. There were no ‘formal’ contracts. We only provided a basic documentation set and no permits (planning or building) were required. Communication with the client was irregular, mostly through occasional Skype meetings and email correspondence. Communication with the builder, who had no access to a computer or Internet facilities, was even more erratic. Clarity of communication was further complicated by differences in language and terminology.

The procurement process for the project transgressed all the norms and safeguards of professional practice. Admittedly this increases risk and requires greater trust between all parties, but this is sometimes the nature of engaging in such projects. I agree in principle with all the ‘best practice’ initiatives that Public Architecture suggests in structuring pro bono work. However, I think there can be some advantages in loosening the formalities of practice in certain circumstances, especially in intercultural contexts.

This leads me back to the provocations posed earlier, particularly in relation to undertaking work in intercultural contexts. What are the motivations behind it and is there any value in it?

To address the first question, the provocations suggested that ‘creative freedom’ is a contributing factor for architects. Rick Sunberg of Olson Kundig identified expansive creativity as one of the benefits of pro bono work as a condition of negotiating the tight budget and material constraints. There are also potentially creative opportunities in aligning interests since in pro bono work architects choose their clients as much as clients choose their architects. The opportunity for creative freedom may be part of the motivation to undertake pro bono work for some architects, but that is not my experience. My days in architectural practice were characterised by tight budgets and great clients. Rather than creative freedom, if anything I would say that the design of the Tong-Len hostel was underpinned by a degree of conservativism. This was fuelled partly by a fear of the unregulated environment and partly by inhibitions over challenging ‘norms’ of design and building in an unfamiliar cultural context with limited time to research and propose robust alternatives.

Without denying the potential creative benefits, commercial advantages and general kudos that can come from undertaking pro bono projects, to my mind the primary motivation is altruistic. The time commitment and financial burden to small practices is substantial. As an academic, arguably there is less selflessness in this regard – service to the community is a part of my job description (albeit a small and contracting part under increasing pressures from the competitive and commercialised university environment) i.e. I get paid for it. Nevertheless, pro bono services are not primarily about undertaking work for free. As John Cary, former executive director of Public Architecture, is at pains to point out ‘pro bono publico’ actually means ‘for the public good’ and its common misinterpretation as ‘for free’ “speaks of cost not cause”.[4]

The second provocation concerning the value, or efficacy, or undertaking pro bono projects in an intercultural context is more contentions. I have wrestled with the dilemma over whether the Tong-Len project would have been better undertaken by someone ‘in country’. Of course, this is a question that cannot be answered. Certainly there would have been advantages in local knowledge as well as regular access to the site. Nevertheless, I was under no ‘illusion’ about the need for our design services. As is the case with so many pro bono projects, there was an established personal connection with the not-for-profit organisation well before we were asked to contribute architectural services. Simply, we did it because we were asked to, and we felt we could do a good job.

Was the project a success? Honestly there were some struggles along the way, there were certainly some things that I wished I had had the time and energy to pursue and there would definitely have been advantages of being physically close to the site to maintain quality control during construction. Nevertheless, there were also benefits in our distance from the project in a more abstract sense. Working in unfamiliar contexts we see with different eyes and can offer different perspectives. Kashmiri Lal, the father of one of the girls in the hostel, came and spoke to me about what he liked about the building - the way it captured the sun, the way it separated boys and girls (necessary for cultural reasons) but allowed them to be one community, and the simplicity of the planning enabling future flexibility. These were all the things in my mind when I designed the building and he understood them all. However, it was the way he spoke admiringly about the windows as being ‘different’ but ‘right’ that warmed my heart.

If pro bono projects are about ‘public good’, then the measure of success must surely be how the projects fulfill the needs and desires of the communities that they serve. Seeking an answer to this question, I asked Vijay - the boy that I sponsor who lives in the hostel - if we had done a good job. He answered “yes”, then paused and said “no, you have not done a good job, you have done an excellent job”. My heart warmed further.

Yet, the measure of success must be an ongoing question. Will the building continue to serve the needs of the charity and enrich the lives of the people who inhabit it? This should be a question applied to all architectural projects, but particularly to those undertaken pro bono publico. I look forward to seeking answers to this question for many years to come.

Ceridwen Owen
Architects for Peace, December 2011

Ceridwen Owen is a full-time lecturer in the School of Architecture & Design at the University of Tasmania and a very part-time partner with Core Collective architects.

Thanks to Ryan Strating, the leading partner of Core Collective for working with me on the design and documentation of this project and giving up so much of his time for free and in the public good.
Thanks to Jamyang, Director of Tong-Len Charitable Trust for offering us the opportunity to do this project.
Thanks to my mother, Anna Owen, Director of Tong-Len UK who tirelessly works to raise money for all of Tong-Len’s projects, including this building.
Thanks to Jordan Davis for coming over for the inauguration and taking all of these amazing photos.
Finally, thanks to the kids in the hostel. You are all very special.

All images copyright Jordan Davis 2011

1. Nikki Holdsworth and Jordan Davis (2011) ‘Intercultural Awareness: Communication and Ethical Agency within Architecture-related Community Development practice’; research undertaken as part of Advanced Design Research in the Master of Architecture, School of Architecture and Design, University of Tasmania
2. Nikki Holdsworth (2011) ‘Other-ly and alternative: social responsibility in architectural practice’; Honours research project, Master of Architecture, School of Architecture and Design, University of Tasmania
3. John Peterson ‘Why Pro Bono?’, Preface to Cary, J. (Ed) (2010) The Power of Pro Bono: 40 stories about design for the public good by architects and their clients, New York: Metropolis Books, p.xi
4. John Cary ‘Architecture as a Social Act’, in Cary, J. (Ed) (2010) The Power of Pro Bono: 40 stories about design for the public good by architects and their clients, New York: Metropolis Books, p.20


Eleanor Chapman said...

Thanks for this insightful piece Ceridwen. The question of pro bono actions by Australian architects in a foreign context is one that the Architects for Peace pro bono team has wrestled with too. Whatever the anxieties and pitfalls of venturing into this area, the evidence that this building has embraced by individuals close to it suggests to me that the relationship of the local community with the project is one of trust and hopefully a sense of ownership, which is surely a sign of its success on one front. 'The Power of Pro Bono' (particularly the opening texts that you've cited) is a must-read for anyone wondering about the point of pro bono design -

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