Can architecture be used to uplift the people in a community? The new exhibition Design for Good: Architecture for Everyone, running at Museum of Design Atlanta through January 20, shows how architects and designers are rethinking their practice by creating work meant to help others. Curator and author John Cary features real-world stories about buildings that are created with and for the people who use them.
ArtsATL caught up with Cary to discuss the many ways design shapes our lived experience, even if we don’t realize it.
ArtsATL: Describe yourself in exactly six words.
John Cary: An ambassador for design that dignifies.
ArtsATL: How did you get in the curatorial world after being an architect?
Cary: I was trained as an architect, but never technically practiced architecture. Following graduate school, I immediately went into nonprofit management and then turned to writing and consulting. A lot of my consulting work — for entities like TED — doesn’t have an apparent design focus, but I approach all of my work through a design lens. For me, design is a way of looking at the world. My last book, Design for Good: A New Era of Architecture for Everyone, caught the attention of the Museum of Design Atlanta (MODA), and they gave me the extraordinary opportunity to transform the book into an exhibition.
ArtsATL: How does architecture fulfill a social justice function?
Cary: I believe that design functions like the soundtrack that we’re not fully aware is playing. It sends us, and all people, subconscious messages about what to feel and expect. We’ve all been in buildings or spaces that make us feel uncomfortable, unsafe or just plain uninspired. But a space can also lift us up, particularly marginalized people and communities that are all too often relegated to the worst of design. When design is truly dignifying, it can make people feel honored, respected, safe and seen.
ArtsATL: What are some design groups in this exhibition, and why are they cool?
Cary: In my writing, I have always been as interested in celebrating the clients and users of a particular building as I have the building’s designers, and this is something the exhibition and book make clear. Groups like Partners in Health and Women for Women International have recognized the power of design, and their work has been transformed by it. Over the past decade, a nonprofit architecture firm called MASS Design Group has shown the value of design in projects like a world-class hospital for the poor in rural Rwanda, while also designing the National Memorial for Peace & Justice in nearby Montgomery, Alabama.
ArtsATL: What’s your favorite building in Atlanta and why?
Cary: I love the Center for Civil and Human Rights. The design of the building and the spaces within it are striking. It’s this incredible canvas for exhibitions for what remain some of the most pressing social challenges of our time. Also, I love that the Center features a large mural by renowned graphic designer Paula Scher, who designed my book, Design for Good, and who led a design conversation for MODA in 2017. Small world!
John Cary speaks about the new exhibition Design for Good on September 27 at 7 p.m. in the Woodruff Arts Center’s Rich Theatre.