Designs for the Greater Good: John Dwyer champions architecture that responds to human needs, not just wants

John Dwyer amongst projects and students at Dunwoody College of Technology / / Photo by Tj Turner

John Dwyer designs buildings that do more than provide shelter or inspire people to snag a selfie to post on Instagram. He designs buildings that serve his community.

Dwyer’s approach as an architect can be seen in all of his work, from a Northeast Minneapolis live/work space that weaves a creative, minimalist gallery space into a residential street, to the design for a 213,000-square-foot mixed-use building set in Minneapolis’ historic Mill District. And while these buildings are completely different, both follow the same core philosophy: architectural design isn’t just a profession, it’s a practice to serve and take care of people.

Dwyer’s introduction to this perspective—commonly known as public interest design—began in graduate school at the University of Minnesota. At the time, Tom Fisher was serving as dean of what is now the College of Design and championed architecture’s role in serving populations with oft-ignored voices and needs. After graduating with a Masters in Architecture in 2000, Dwyer took this mentality with him into his work as a sole proprietor—a tenure that took him to New Orleans to assist with rebuilding in the wake of Hurricane Katrina—and into his partnership with Colin Oglesbay in 2016 to co-run the firm Dwyer/Oglesbay.

Dwyer/Oglesbay practices public interest design in all of its projects, which span residential and commercial spaces that blend architecture, landscape, sustainability, and urban planning. Their proposal for the Mill District building, for example, includes adding pocket gardens and pollution-filtering materials to promote healthy living for those who work, live, and/or park in the mixed-use building.

800 Washington Avenue South, Minneapolis, Minnesota rendering from Dwyer/Oglesbay // Courtesy of John Dwyer

The concept of public interest design dates back to a speech given by civil rights activist Whitney Young at the American Institute of Architects Convention in 1968. In it, Young challenged the architects present to recognize their power and responsibility as agents in designing spaces that could welcome, ignore, or even increase the suffering of marginalized and underserved populations.

The speech came in the face of rampant discriminatory housing practices that the institute had let run unacknowledged. “You are employers, you are key people in the planning of our cities today,” Young said. “You share the responsibility for the mess we are in, [in] terms of the white noose around the central city.”

Young also charged architects to stop using the excuse that their role “is to give people what they want,” a distinction Dwyer uses in his instruction at Dunwoody College of Technology, whose Bachelor of Architecture program he assisted in founding in 2013. Many designs prioritize the wants and desires of the affluent—think high-end condos and museums—while public interest design is rooted in responding to human need.

Addressing human desires has its place, too, though, and can serve as an entry point for public interest projects, Dwyer says. He describes a process he used while renovating and building homes in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward after Hurricane Katrina in 2007. His team began reconstruction by painting the walls inside the homes—even those that would likely be torn down in a few days. By focusing on an aesthetic element like painting, Dwyer explains, it helped preserve and acknowledge the residents’ dignity—an act of respect that made it easier to discuss subsequent assessments and rebuilding. “It was the energy around… something new,” Dwyer says. “It allowed us to better address the needs by doing some things that were just wants.”

John looking on at projects inspired by coastal Belize from students at Dunwoody College of Technology / / Photo by Tj Turner

Dwyer also stressed that architects should gather community input to inform their designs rather than seek feedback on a ready-made plan. “It’s not about us designing something and unveiling it to the public. We allow the community to participate before there is a proposal,” Dwyer says. “The way of engaging is not about getting their approval of a design, it’s to get them to be a driver and central focus of how the design is created.”

Just as the community ideally informs design, Dwyer believes that architects should also work within the political context of the community rather than try to change it. “The difference between design and art is that in design, we respond to a context we are given. In art, we choose our context; we choose our subject, we choose our media, we choose what we’re trying to communicate,” Dwyer says. “We can say we need to change the political will of our city, [but] design would say […] this is the situation we need to design within.”

Working within the context of a community’s political climate enables architects to find solutions in the face of a common predicament: a lack of political will to support projects that address the needs of underrepresented populations. Dwyer has contributed to the AIA’s Search for Shelter initiative, which invites architects, design professionals, and students to collaborate on affordable housing solutions. A 2016 project developed with Hennepin County Medical Center proposed building a fleet of micro-units to provide safe, hygienic, and community-building transitional housing for the homeless population. The proposal illustrated several potential paths for navigating Minneapolis’ zoning laws, such as developing the units on hospital grounds and classifying them as remote patient rooms.

Public interest design is also woven into Dunwoody College’s Bachelor of Architecture program, which is on track for accreditation this fall. Dwyer explains that this focus was not intentionally built into the program, rather quickly emerged as a core pillar due to the curriculum’s active-practice focus. Both Dwyer and the other faculty have been drawn to select projects for underserved communities, often completing the initial visioning and research phase most projects require to secure funding to build.

Rebuilding a portion of a home lost during Hurricane Maria with the Freedom By Design Project at Casa Maribel, Spring 2019 / / Photo Courtesy John Dwyer.

Dwyer’s students are currently involved in one such project: developing a visioning document for a community and retreat center in Davyton, Jamaica. The document will provide a visual aid to help the community imagine the completed building and will support fundraising efforts. The team is working with local architects and community leaders on the design, and Dwyer hopes to see the project through to completion in the next two years.

The Davyton project is just the latest in numerous service-learning programs that have sent Dunwoody students across the state and country—from building and painting homes in Ponce, Puerto Rico, to conducting research on a proposed community center for the urban farming initiative Frogtown Farms in St. Paul.

John Dwyer on site with Freedom By Design / / Photo courtesy John Dwyer

Even as Dwyer and his students work to meet global needs, Dwyer says he is intentional about founding his practice in Minnesota, his home state. “I think the work is most effective when the work is in communities we’re already a part of,” he says. “Trying to be an outside savior is never effective.”

However, Dwyer continues, an outside voice can be a powerful tool for supporting local architects by providing impartial viewpoints and data to support efforts. His work in Puerto Rico included researching and developing a disaster preparedness guide that makes the case for investing in food, energy, and home security resources. “A lot of our work is to develop research and data to be given to the people that has an unbiased perspective and an unbiased eye,” Dwyer says. “We can promote the local architects so the local communities have more leverage to do things on their own.”

To successfully adopt this practice, it’s important for architects to focus on a positive community-based outcome rather than personal or professional recognition, Dwyer says. “For my own practice, I talk a lot about it in terms of doing good—about the difference between pursuing goodness and pursuing greatness,” he explains. “Greatness can lead to a place where we’re trying to achieve something for ourselves individually. To do good means to go do good outside yourself. If my energy is going toward doing good, then that’s the place to be.”