Faith at Large
This week's stories | Home Page
Issue Date:  February 24, 2006

Creating dignity by design


Most people who visit the Louvre spend the bulk of their museum time viewing Venus de Milo, Winged Victory and the Borghese Gladiator, or determinedly pushing their way through the crush of people to see the Mona Lisa.

When Dan Pitera visited the Paris museum, however, he was entranced by something different. For 20 minutes, the Detroit architect watched a throng of visitors ascend and descend the grand spiral staircase crowned by the famous glass-and-metal pyramid at the museum’s entrance. More specifically, he watched people’s hands slide casually along the curves of the accompanying handrail.

“Every single person’s hand followed the handrail, which was made of delicately brushed metal,” Pitera said. “They were engaged in touching the building because it gave them a pleasant feeling.”

Pitera recounted these observations during a “desk critique” with an architecture student at the University of Detroit Mercy, and said to her, “That’s what architects have to do.”

Architectural design evokes emotion, enhances sensibilities and generates a sense of place. The design of something as simple as a single room can foster anything from hope to despair for those who work or live within its bounds. Few would argue that great architectural design is not a necessity for museums, libraries and cultural centers, but according to Pitera, high-quality design is a basic human need, a need that should be attended to in the more commonplace buildings in urban landscapes.

“Wouldn’t it be great,” Pitera said, “to see affordable housing on the covers of magazines, built within the necessary budgets?”

A self-described “political activist masquerading as an architect,” Pitera has steered his career in such a way so as to make good design a reality for as many people as possible.

Pitera directs the Detroit Center for Collaborative Design, an architectural firm housed at the University of Detroit Mercy, a university sponsored by the Jesuits and the Sisters of Mercy that serves 5,600 students. The center provides design services solely to nonprofit organizations. During the past five years, the center, staffed by Pitera, two fellows and two students, has designed, among other things, a job training center, an educational facility for women and girls, a portable AIDS treatment station, and a gymnasium for children with physical disabilities.

“We take on projects other architects will never take,” said Pitera, 43. “Most architects won’t take on nonconventional projects. It’s not that they don’t want them to work, but the structure of the profession has not made it possible. ... But nonprofits like to say ‘my architect’ just like the rich people do.”

While architectural design may seem an unusual means of political activism, Pitera believes in its power.

“Architecture has seemingly little power, but in the great civilizations architecture was used a as a powerful tool,” he said. “An attractive, supportive, well-designed space is a basic human need. Think of a prison without a strong aesthetic environment. If you take away great design space, those people will not die, but it will affect how they are as people.

“We have to think about how everyday conditions support our ideologies,” Pitera said. “When you show anyone respect, they will return that respect, not instantaneously, but over time.”

According to Pitera, architecture also functions as an act of civil disobedience. “We are always changing the power structures and conditions we are working under,” he said.

Pitera said that changing the structures applies not only to the state, but to the way the profession itself is practiced. The traditional relationship between the architect and a client is that of a pyramid, with the architect at the top. “We are taught that architecture is at the top of the pyramid, that we are God,” Pitera said. “I do not want to be God -- that’s too much responsibility for me. It’s the projects that need to be at the top.”

The subversion of traditional power structures was something Pitera was exposed to at an early age. His father died at the age of 33, when Pitera was in the third grade.

“I grew up in a matriarchy, not a patriarchy,” Pitera said. “So I see things differently -- not that I see them as a female does, because that’s not possible, but I do see things differently.”

Cornfield is spooky

Pitera has always been attentive to the emotions evoked by a place, as an afternoon of “desk crits” (critiques of student work) shows. As he moves from table to table, where students draft a variety of landscape designs, he readily draws upon his own experience of place as he examines each design.

He examines one student’s drawing of a teaching garden, a garden that will be used to educate children about the connections between farmland and the dinner table. Pitera scrutinizes the space designated for a small cornfield.

“Have you ever been in a cornfield?” he asks the student. “It’s exhilarating, but it’s also spooky. You lose touch of the horizon, of boundaries. That’s why so many horror films use them.

“Think about the personality of the actual space, not just the drawing,” he says.

Pitera peers at another garden design over a student’s shoulder, and listens to his calm, methodical, technical explanation.

“Now where is the space you cannot wait to see?” Pitera says. “What you have is very thoughtful and rational, but where does that become an experience? How does that create a passionate, exciting, vibrant environment? How do you render that? This can be so exciting -- you have earth berm seats!

“I love these piles of discarded ideas!” he says, pointing to heaps of crumpled trace paper lined with drawings. “It shows so much enthusiasm and energy!”

Energy is something Pitera possesses in abundance. As a child growing up in Hammonton, N.J., his mother required him to run around the outside of the family’s house three times to burn off excess energy before coming indoors. As an adult, Pitera employs his own measures to keep his energy in check. For example, he drinks only decaffeinated coffee.

“Could you imagine what would happen if I drank regular?” he asks.

Pitera’s drive is what makes him so effective as an architect, according to his good friend David Nantais, director of Magis, a postgraduate service program for Jesuit Volunteer Corps Midwest.

“It’s very connected with his vision,” Nantais said. “All of us can imagine wonderful things, but a lot of times we don’t always make them happen. Dan imagines it, and then he goes out and does it. He uses his energy well.”

Pitera arrives in his office at four or five a.m. each day, which allows him ample design time before the day’s meetings, and time in the evenings with his wife, Allegra, who also teaches at Detroit Mercy, and his 2-year-old daughter.

“Because of when I wake up, she and I go to bed at the same time,” he said.

On his early morning drive to the campus of Detroit Mercy, Pitera sees joggers running with baseball bats and golf clubs in hand, a reminder of the fear, violence, debilitating poverty and racial tensions that have plagued the city for as long as most residents can remember.

As far as its architecture is concerned, the Motor City is largely a city of voids. From 1980-2000 the city issued 108,246 residential demolition permits, and, by contrast, only 9,504 building permits. A drive through downtown showcases an urban landscape with a striking number of empty, burned-out buildings and abandoned storefronts. (There are so many abandoned storefronts that the city government commissioned local architectural firms to design exhibits to fill them for February’s Super Bowl.)

Out of the 374 U.S. cities with shrinking populations, Detroit ranks 27th on the list. The city loses 8.1 people per hour. Pitera also notes that 300 graves per year are moved to the suburbs.

“Besides the living, the dead are leaving too,” Pitera said. “People in the suburbs are afraid to visit their loved ones in the city.”

City’s personality

But instead of seeing the abandoned spaces as hopeless causes, Pitera sees them as ripe with potential.

“Our work here is truly needed,” he said. “People have gone through so much here, and because of that the city has a resolute personality. The flip side is that it is an exciting place.”

Pitera began his architectural career on the fast track to success, studying at Georgia Tech University, which gives rise to many up-and-coming architects, also known as “starchitects.”

Though he certainly had the skills and the pedigree to be one of these “starchitects,” (he has served as a fellow at both Harvard and University of Nebraska, and has been offered two dean positions at other universities), Pitera has feet planted firmly in Detroit.

“He’s the most talented designer I’ve ever met,” said Stephen Vogel, dean of the Detroit Mercy School of Architecture. “He could easily be working at any of the top firms in San Francisco or Chicago, but he chooses to be here. As an optimist he chooses to see it as an opportunity.”

“Where he has chosen to place himself speaks volumes about his priorities and his spirituality,” Nantais said. “He’s definitely a finding-God-in-all-things kind of person.”

Pitera, however, is quick to dismiss lavish praise.

“This isn’t brain surgery when you come from a religious background,” he said. “Inherent in every project I take on is that it is subversive in some way. It’s a cliché, but I feel that I’m a part of helping to better people’s lives. The excitement and gratitude we get is what keeps me going.”

Renée LaReau is a writer living in Columbus, Ohio.

National Catholic Reporter, February 24, 2006

This Week's Stories | Home Page | Top of Page
Copyright  © The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO   64111
All rights reserved.
TEL:  816-531-0538     FAX:  1-816-968-2280   Send comments about this Web site to: