The five traits in this section represent a taxonomy of mindset shifts exhibited by practices that self-initiate work. These traits can be used to construct a philosophy and model for relevant practice in service of collective wellbeing.


Serve the public.

Vermeer, Johannes. 'The Little Street' (Het Straatje). 1657–1658. From the collection of the Rijksmuseum. Vermeer, Johannes. The Little Street (Het Straatje). 1657–1658. From the collection of the Rijksmuseum.

Architects must make a critical reassessment of who we serve. Work to establish deeper connections to the places where we live and the people with whom we share them.

Through research, conversations, and observation, a place reveals gaps where it has failed to provide for its citizens. Some gaps are glaringly obvious, like a widespread lack of affordable housing. Others can be subtle, as when citizens feel devoid of agency in their built environment. To get to the underlying systemic causes of these absences, it is important to ask what is missing and why. Often, this relates to the way broader social and economic systems manifest at the local scale. Identifying a specific focus and building knowledge around it prepares one to act.

Reposition what you see as architecture to be more than a building. Space influences how we act and how we interact, what we can do and what we cannot. It should provide an open framework for citizens to experience and act upon.

In Vermeer’s The Little Street, the brick buildings of Delft dominate the composition. While central, they are not the focus of the piece. Instead the eye is drawn to the figures playing in the road and framed in the doorways——the subjects of this painting are the people, not the structures.



Expand the role.

Options for pawn promotion. OPTIONS FOR PAWN PROMOTION.

When return on investment is a building’s only ambition, the architect works in service of private rather than public interest.

If the brief has already determined the location, program, square footage, and unit mix, the architect’s role is reduced to little more than facade design and technical services. Public amenities are added either in service of marketability or in obligation to code compliance.

Regaining agency as architects necessitates stepping outside the understood boundaries of the profession to get ahead of the project brief entirely. Crossing disciplines into development, urban design, policy, and business can reposition architects to produce work with greater relevance. Projects that create community-oriented programming may benefit from the support of a self-initiated organization or business to foster long lasting vision and viability.

It can be necessary to be noisy, make statements to local legislative bodies, or bring powerful actors together to discuss coordinated visions for the future.

The pawn is, for the most part, the weakest of the chess pieces. It can only move one square at a time and only forward toward enemy lines. However, if a pawn makes it to the last row of the board, it can become another piece——a knight, a bishop, a rook, or even a queen——and move much more freely.


Form alliances.

The completed double sheetbend before tightening. THE COMPLETED DOUBLE SHEETBEND BEFORE TIGHTENING.

Aspirational projects depend on partnerships with value-aligned allies. It is important to understand the limits of our expertise, capabilities, and resources, and when to partner with those who can bring life to an initiative and extend its reach.

Developers, municipalities, non-profits, research institutions, businesses, and most importantly, communities and their citizens are all potential allies. Reject the notion that architects are authority figures, and instead acknowledge the benefit of approaching a situation as an amateur. This results in a more earnest attempt to ask questions and understand others. Genuinely involving end-users in the design process as collaborators will reveal complex needs, aspirations, and subtext.

Collective ownership generates excitement and much-needed momentum while demonstrating that our surroundings are not fixed.

The double sheetbend knot is used to securely bind together two ropes differing in size or material. It is a sailing knot, which allows a limited rope to be extended with the help of another.


Don't wait for a client.

A map of the Rhode River watershed. A MAP OF THE RHODE RIVER WATERSHED.

When there is no direct patron to support an idea, architects can be resourceful and find alternative ways to finance a project. This can take the form of directly approaching a developer or municipality with a sound proposal, a reversal of the established relationship.

Raising money by means of crowd-funding builds collective ownership while democratizing the process of city-making. Apply for community or arts-focused grants that are aligned with the project's mission. Sourcing funding and locating potential sites requires an opportunistic approach.

Typical development leaves cracks in the urban fabric on sites deemed undesirable or undevelopable. The property owner of a site awaiting development might benefit from temporary programming; delays in development are common and the lifespan of “temporary” programming can stretch indefinitely.

Every city has its own unique gaps that can be exploited for community benefit with small-scale interventions.

A watershed map describes all the streams, creeks, and rivulets which feed into a major channel. It plots how they join together——though each branch runs a small course, the aggregate of them, the collection of water they carry, forms rivers.


Test in reality.

Trajectory map of the orbits of three celestial bodies. TRAJECTORY MAP OF THE ORBITS OF THREE CELESTIAL BODIES.

To measure and understand the effects of an intervention, it must first exist. Envision the built environment as a laboratory for experimentation, reflection, and refinement.

Time shows that cities are not fixed, but in constant flux. Even when places feel stagnant, disruptions can reveal new interpretations of space. Carefully consider design approaches that introduce dynamic variables and unexpected outcomes, rather than controlled processes leading to outcomes of certainty.

Work that serves the public is most impactful when it offers a framework for users to exert reciprocal influence, leading to adaptable places with unforeseen uses. It is critical to understand that a handful of small projects can have the same impact as a single large project.

The success of an intervention needn’t lie solely with the physical object; success can also be the conversations and mindset shifts provoked. Test, analyze, repeat.

In celestial mechanics, the n-body problem describes the complexity of orbital systems. Each body exerts a gravitational force on all the others, and while their relationship can be approximated, it can never be predicted. In order to determine what will happen you have to watch them interact.