Future Firm’s Office of the Public Architect

Anastasija Spasovska

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Future Firm is a Chicago-based architecture practice founded by Craig Reschke and Ann Lui in 2015. Their work spans a number of disciplines, placing them at the intersection of art, architecture, community engagement practices, and technological innovation. Both founding partners have worked for corporate offices and are involved in academia. After working in offices on mostly foreign, large-scale projects, they started Future Firm to explore how architecture can more methodologically describe and affect the built environment through landscape, culture, and society.

Running in conjunction with the 2017 Chicago Architecture Biennial, the Chicago Architecture Foundation (CAF) challenged fifty Chicago-based architects to rethink underappreciated and underperforming spaces in their city. Showcasing their investigations at the exhibition, “Between States—50 Designers Transform Chicago's Neighborhoods,” the design teams were to identify a physical asset in one of Chicago’s fifty wards that could benefit from a redesign and imagine a way to transition it “between states.” The meaning was twofold: first, propose a way to change the state of an underperforming or dilapidated site into a rejuvenated civic anchor; and second, present an inspiring case study of a similar and successful project from another US state or location outside of Chicago.

Future Firm answered CAF’s call with a proposal for an Office of the Public Architect. Rather than working in a single area of the city, Lui and Reschke took a more systematic approach to the problem. Having recently opened a practice in Belmont, Massachusetts, Lui and Reschke were quite open about the type of projects they would take on. Working on standard residential and commercial projects, they started dealing with the practical and mundane problems of their clients. In this period, and to the surprise of its partners, the office started to receive numerous inquiries and requests from Chicago citizens on another type of work: help in resolving building code violations.

The Department Of Building logged over ninety thousand building violations in 2017 alone, according to Chicago’s data portal. About 45 percent of residential field inspections revealed code violations. Building codes go a long way toward ensuring that houses are safe, and it is not uncommon for a building to have multiple violations at the same time. Some building code violations are easy to find, such as missing or defective ground-fault circuit interrupters, handrails without returns, improper bathroom ventilation, missing deck flashing, and misplaced smoke alarms. Other common and potentially dangerous building code violations are hard to locate—and even harder to fix—because they’re buried behind finished walls. These include improper framing, excessively cut and notched studs and joists, shallow insulation depth, improper type and size of electrical wires, and inadequate connections between building materials. The occurrence of building code violations can be an effect of hiring a careless inspector or disreputable builder, or of the house predating current building codes.

In the firm’s experience, professional developers or landlords are not usually the ones who call to ask for help. Homeowners seldom reach out for assistance, and architectural services, in this case, have a different dimension when the payer is an individual client. This led Lui and Reschke to think about what happens when a person cannot afford the architectural services needed to bring their building up to code. Furthermore, Chicago is known for having a problem with empty lots and dilapidated buildings. According to Reschke, owners not being able to resolve their building code violations has directly contributed to the empty lot issue.

“When you commit 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? People could go get guidance, get architectural plans, have a way to fix their violations,” Reschke says. Future Firm proposes opening an office that would provide services to those who can’t otherwise afford them.

Future Firm envisions this office as an easy access resource for design, architectural work and bureaucratic building code resolution procedures that would offer a faster, compassionate, and dignified service to its citizens. In regards to prospective employees, they see this office as a good fit for early-career architects to gain on-the-ground experience and a chance for senior designers to engage in community-based work.

There are precedents to pro bono work within the field of architecture. Some architecture offices lend their services for free to communities in need and nonprofit organizations that genuinely cannot afford to pay market rates. Others, such as Public Architecture, serve as a connection between such nonprofits and architects willing to contribute. However, Future Firm’s proposition avoids charity and donations, relying on taxpayer dollars.

Lui and Reschke understand that this concept might seem a bit far-fetched. However, the same was originally said of the idea of a public defender. Clara Foltz, California’s first woman attorney, proposed the idea at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. She saw the public defender as a counterweight to public prosecutors, having equal funding and stature. Though Los Angeles opened a public defender office in 1913, it wasn’t until 1963, in the case of Gideon v. Wainwright, that the Supreme Court decided that states must provide legal counsel for those that cannot afford their own.

Thinking about underutilized space in the framework of CAF’s multi year strategy for Chicago, Future Firm positions the Office of the Public Architect in the unused spaces of post offices. Regarding the post office as a central civic space of society, it would be a perfect fit for the proposal, taking over empty post office windows in a number of wards in the city. From these windows, the public architect could work on behalf of Chicago’s citizens through collective investment in the city’s architecture.

Clara Foltz's idea that “the law should be a shield as well as a sword” grew mainly from her experience representing underprivileged citizens in the western courts. Future Firm’s idea is a big one, but the firm believes it has the political will to achieve it. Examining the existing structures of society in regard to public service and human rights has put this office on the map of activist thinking within the architecture and design industry. We all deserve safer and more humane living spaces—and we all deserve dignified means of achieving them. Projects like this bring us closer, one step at a time.