Alumni Spotlight: Francisco “Pancho” Brown MDes ’20
“Change will only happen if we include people that don’t come from hegemonic forms of power and influence, yet are disproportionately affected by structural outcomes.”
— Francisco “Pancho” Brown MDes ’20
We recently spoke with Francisco “Pancho” Brown MDes ’20. Pancho is a Nicaraguan designer and creative consultant with experience in humanitarian and commercial architecture, journalism, and research. Pancho is a co-founder of MICROPOLITAN Studio, an art and design collective connecting the built environment with human stories through design, architecture, and art practices. He has served on design juries at Yale University, CUNY, Boston College, the Michael Graves School of Architecture, and the Wentworth Institute of Technology, where he led an Interdisciplinary Studio in 2021. Currently, Pancho is the Director of Communications at Sage and Coombe Architects.
How did the Master in Design Studies (MDes) program suit your academic goals?
Before the GSD, I already had a Bachelor’s in Architecture and a graduate degree in Sustainable Architecture. I was working in the design field, which is the type of person the MDes program is often aimed toward. Essentially, MDes is a non-studio, research-based two-year program. Besides a couple of core classes, students are able to build their own curriculum. We had options to take classes at Harvard and MIT that were closely related to very specific interests. The diversity of classes gave us constant opportunities to collaborate with other students from different cohorts with overlapping areas of expertise. This multidisciplinary nature highlights how important it is for students to work collectively and to rely on different fields for their work, because that’s how they will practice in the field anyways.
How did you begin parsing out what courses you would select and what research you would pursue at the GSD?
I knew what I wanted to learn more about, and everything else came down to receiving guidance from my professors and making use of the available resources.
When selecting my courses, I was curious about understanding the relation of power dynamics in the US and design, in addition to learning about real estate, graphic design, and urbanism. I was able to take classes on storytelling and communication design that were fundamental to constructing and sequencing ideas. I took some classes focused around technology—I’m not a tech person, but I felt the need to understand the basics because I wanted to collaborate with really sophisticated and talented technologists.
For my research, I studied the relationships between existing buildings and co-working spaces, and the effect that WeWork and co-working culture has had on the digital environment, the real estate market, interior design, and retrofitting technology into culture. I worked with a lot of professors who had their own startups and research on monitoring people in offices.
What were some of the insights that you gathered from that work?
The aspects of the work spaces I studied were intentionally selected to perform in a particular way, responding to a very sophisticated bottom line and integrated system. Thanks to access to technologies like 3D scanning and BIM (Building Information Modeling), these coworking companies were able to retrofit office spaces very quickly. If retrofitting a regular office space in New York City took nine months to a year, these teams were able to do it in two or three months. It was really interesting how they utilized the latest technologies to deliver a functional, cheap, and relatively attractive product.
At its core, [I found that] the co-working business model was not exactly about sharing a single space, which was the origin of co-working spaces. From my research, I got the impression that WeWork and other corporate co-working spaces understood that they wouldn’t make money through the sum of their parts as a space, but through renting single “fishbowl” units. Therefore, the more subdivided a space was, the more money they would make. That’s why you ended up with these dense fishbowls looking like Starbucks designed by West Elm. In 2019, I was doing my research on WeWork when their IPO went out and then crashed, because it was grossly overvalued and due to the controversial behavior of its leadership. On top of that, the pandemic happened, so nobody was using these workspaces. During this time, I also struggled with my own mental health and time management to finish the research, which, in the end, became more of a graphic essay than a full-fledged research book.
This work opened my eyes to the future aspects of adaptive reuse and retrofit in architecture. Office space design has always been defined by current modes of production, technological advancements, and real estate, and these same dynamics are now changing and adapting to new office design landscapes across cities in America.
How has your experience been so far working at Sage and Coombe?
Working as the Director of Communications [at Sage and Coombe] is fascinating and challenging because I’ve always been attracted to the culture of architecture, especially public architecture. It’s exciting to be in a position to tell the story of how public design changes people’s lives for the better. We all feel very proud of our work, and with the idea that anyone can enjoy our libraries, parks, and public restrooms. Sage and Coombe is a small studio that specializes in civic and public architecture. For the last 30 years, Jennifer Sage AB ’78 and Peter Coombe MArch ’88 have been working on projects that were truly exciting to me, including The Noguchi Museum, which, in my opinion, is one of the best adaptive reuse projects in New York. They’ve also been working on a prototype of public bathrooms throughout the city. Projects like these are not only about how something looks, but how it performs—how they impact and affect their immediate communities and ecosystems and how they can mitigate the damaging outcomes that careless architecture has had in our city.
Working with Peter and Jennifer and a team of 20 architects, I learned how to tell this story of impact and being able to quantify that impact—all of these things have been fundamental in shaping my own practice. For example, we just won, together with EHDD, a public competition to design the new Hudson River Park Estuarium Research and Educational Center because of our extensive experience designing beautiful and sound public projects.
You also started MICROPOLITAN Studio with GSD alumni—how did that idea come to fruition?
We were all part of the MDes program in different concentrations. Jimmy Pan MDes ’20 was pursuing the concentration on Risk and Resilience, Delara Rahim MDes ’20 was doing her concentration on Art, Design, and the Public Domain, and I was working in Critical Conservation. Our paths never fully crossed through school, but we were good friends because two of us were neighbors. Then, we were all in the same place during the pandemic, and we realized that we were so different but had a willingness to help each other, so combining our skill sets made perfect sense.
It was an interesting time because we graduated in 2020, so everyone’s plans completely vanished. After wrapping up this amazing academic experience, we decided to open our own art and design collective using our design knowledge, our passion for public spaces and adaptive reuse, and our skills in technology visualization, data, and fabrication. A year later, we were selected to be part of the New Museum’s NEW INC cohort. Having access to the most incredible network of art and culture makers in the region was crucial for our growth as a collective.
We recently signed our LLC, so now things are feeling more real, and our dreams are slowly becoming a reality. As cliche as it sounds, in an environment like the GSD, meeting peers is really the best part. Students were always my biggest source of inspiration, motivation, and knowledge.
Do you think it’s important for alumni to remain a part of the GSD community?
Yes—it’s a gold mine of knowledge. I think the GSD, along with a lot of academic centers across the US, are working on changing the world. Investing time and being a part of the solution is why we’re all in this field.
You need a lot of hope to be a designer. The GSD in particular is full of people with very different backgrounds, most of whom landed there because they share a critical vision of change in design. Today more than ever, every design field must critically examine the structural problems with social and racial equity and climate change in our cities and communities. If we want to make changes to centers of power, like Harvard, we have to put ourselves in conversations, at the table, and so forth. Change will only happen if we include people that don’t come from hegemonic forms of power and influence, yet are disproportionately affected by structural outcomes.
How are designers leaders, and why is it important that designers continue to step up as leaders?
Design is a profession where you’re obliged to see things through multiple lenses. You need to think about things through performance and functionality and beauty and marketplace and fabrication. And then you need to collaborate with a lot of people to get things done.
Essentially, design is human: human culture, human functionality, human views, human accessibility, human friendly, human unfriendly. You can inflict an enormous amount of pain generationally when you redline cities that were designed a certain way, and you can undo [some of that pain] by pursuing design in ways that are extremely accessible and permeable and transparent to everyone. So for me, design leadership is having powerful and effective tools to reimagine and manifest a better world—especially for underrepresented communities and depleted ecosystems.
You can learn more about Pancho’s work and leadership below: