Office of the Public Architect

Location: Chicago, IL
Client: Chicago Architecture Center
Scope: Research & Exhibition
Progress/Year: 2017

When you are accused of a crime, if you cannot afford a lawyer, you have the right to a public defender. When issued a building violation, should you also have the right to a Public Architect? This project was exhibited as part of Between States, an exhibition at the Chicago Architecture Foundation. 

In 2016, Chicago building inspectors issued over 36,000 violations. Some violations can be resolved by hiring a contractor; however, most require a licensed architect which can be a costly service when distributed solely to individual firms. The Office of the Public Architect is a proposal for a consolidated resource for design services, offering faster, compassionate, and dignified resolution of violations for residents. Located in unused windows in existing post offices, the Office of the Public Architect would undertake architectural work, resolve bureaucratic snags, and stock relevant free resources. Newly-minted architects could gain on-the-ground experience while senior designers could track and flag broader concerns on a civic scale. The proposal for an Office of the Public Architect asks: do we collectively agree on a safe and humane built environment for all—and the agency of architecture to affect this vision?

Does the idea of an Office of the Public Architect sound “absurd”? In the late 1800s, the New York Times called the idea of the office of the public defender, proposed by lawyer Clara Foltz (1849–1934), “absurd.” Today, the public defender is a crucial and foundational component of the US legal system. In 1963 Gideon v. Wainwright cemented that states must provide legal counsel for those that cannot afford their own. However, Clara Foltz, the first female lawyer on the west coast, proposed the idea 70 years earlier. Foltz believed that the public defender's office should be a counterweight to the prosecutor's office, with equal funding and stature: “The law should be a shield, as well as a sword.” Similarly the Office of the Public Architect could serve as as a counterweight to the Department of Buildings, working on behalf of Chicago’s citizens through collective investment in the city’s architecture.