John Syvertsen has been to a lot of ribbon cuttings. The one that he’ll always remember wasn’t a high-profile project. It was the opening of an elevator.
Syvertsen, senior principal at Cannon Design, is one of the many Chicago architects who try to give back to the community. He was one of the featured speakers at “Public Interest Architecture In Practice” presented by AIA Chicago on February 8 at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
What made the elevator installation so memorable for Syvertsen?
“It was for an organization in Evanston called Family Focus,” he said. “They serve families with unusual needs, teen moms trying to stay in school. It’s a fantastic organization, but they needed an elevator. We spent 10 years working with them on small ADA projects, but the ultimate project was an elevator. If they didn’t get it, they were going to have to leave the building.
“I remember sitting at the ribbon-cutting ceremony, with the mayor and 30 other people to celebrate the opening of an elevator. And I don’t think I’ve ever experienced a more important, more significant ribbon cutting ceremony.”
Mark Jolicoeur, education market leader at Perkins + Will, makes it a point to take on pro bono work because it helps engage architects with the community.
“Our approach is to provide our profession abilities to those who otherwise couldn’t engage a firm like ours, Jolicoeur said. “We look for local organizations with a good business model.”
One such project was GiGi’s Playhouse, a Down syndrome achievement center based in Hoffman Estates. Jolicoeur made an excellent choice—GiGi’s Playhouse has been so successful its now has locations across the United States.
Syvertsen said pro bono work “lives in the department of good. We’re trying to improve people’s lives. We want to share our values and help organizations that don’t have many resources.”
Syvertsen also developed a mentor program and Meet And Match, which helps bring people who have needs together with people who have skills.
Katherine Darnstadt, founder and principal of Latent Design, said building design is only one part of her firm’s approach to public interest architecture.
“You need a building, but you also need an organizational structure,” she said. “We’re designing a new community center for one client, and we’re also designing an academic curriculum for them.”
Peter Landon summed up the feelings of his peers when he said his firm isn’t mission-driven, “but we’re a firm with a mission.” He pointed to one rehab project he’s particularly proud of: Harvest Commons Apartments.
“To get people off the streets and to a place where they can feel proud of their home is good work to do,” Landon said. There’s positive, good vibes in these projects.”