The Global Studio builds social responsibility from the grass roots up
Four 30-something Seattle architects who donate their services to poor communities in their spare time recently won a major international competition to design a technology hub for a Nairobi-area slum.
by Carey Quan Gelernter
Three of the four 30-something architects who became the Global Studio met in architecture school at the University of Washington, where the "not-so-hidden agenda," as one says, was that an architect must "be an agent for positive social change."
To their charismatic prof, Sergio Palleroni, poor communities worldwide were classrooms for learning-by-doing-good. He took his students from the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota to squatter settlements in Mexico. Always they collaborated with the people — to build not just buildings but communities.
Most of his students' careers remained influenced by him, but three took things further.
After they graduated about seven years ago, they went on to traditional architecture jobs: Stephanie Ingram and Geoff Piper formed Fivedot design/build; Matthew Sullivan landed at Integrus Architecture. But they were determined to continue "socially responsible, community-based architecture" on the side.
Opportunities abounded. Piper and Sullivan's UW thesis to create a center for a Kenyan village ravaged by HIV/AIDS won an AIA citation; calls from charities followed. The three formed nonprofit the Global Studio in 2006, to teach "Sergio-style" classes during vacations.
They connected with Seattle-based Agros International, a nonprofit that brings land ownership via microloans to rural families in Central America and Mexico. Global Studio classes created master plans for and financed new villages there. Ashley Waldron was in the first class and ended up joining Global Studio.
Waldron (now at Johnson Architecture & Planning) and Sullivan then collaborated with Ingram and Piper on a major international competition. Their design, to build a technology hub for slums outside Nairobi, Kenya, won.
The four have been taking unpaid time off for trips to Kenya and working off hours on the project (see www.globalstudioonline.com).
Can they keep doing idealism on the side? "It gets harder as we get older, with life, jobs, families," says Sullivan. Ingram says a goal is to find a way to make a living on these kinds of projects.
But there's also this, says Piper: "I have a lot of fun."
Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company
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