Modes of Practice: Architecture for...?

January 20, 2014

[This post was written in spring 2013, but I was too busy to finish it then - so here it is now!]

Architecture for architects?

Architecture for humanity?

Architecture for the elite, the masses, the academy, the developer?

In thinking about my experiences at architecture school, I realize that our professors have done a great job incorporating principles of “sustainable design” (design and construction that minimize energy and materials use, carbon footprint, etc) into the curriculum, but that we have learned little or nothing about the (emerging?) field of “public interest design,” design for social justice and the public good. Perhaps architecture professors think that this is such a basic tenet of architecture, that we design for the public good, that they don’t think it’s necessary to make it explicit. But I think this is far from true. I only stumbled upon ideas about design in the service of social, economic, and ecological justice through my investigations into housing and suburban retrofit as part of my studio last semester [fall 2012]. Even when we worked on a housing project for Harlem, we heard about construction methods, gentrification, historical types of apartments, and financing strategies, but never once did we discuss involving current Harlem residents in community design processes, or other ways of being inclusive and addressing social issues (although a number of my classmates used these strategies anyway). I know that these ideas were in vogue back in the ’60s, so there is a history of and a body of literature on architecture for social justice. I don’t think this omission from the studio brief was a conscious one, so I’m not sure why it hasn’t been more discussed.

This semester [spring 2013] I’m taking a course called “Architecture, Human Rights, and Spatial Politics,” where we are trying to think through the many ways in which architecture intersects with issues of human rights, like emergency housing, refugee camps, the United Nations campus here in NYC, architectures of occupation, spaces of protest, and more. I’m excited to be reading about the ways in which architects are trying to wrestle with tough questions about human rights, environmental questions, and technology, and trying to figure out what role architects and architecture have to play in this discussion. Reading about the successes and failures of the last century is helping us understand how to move forward with these ideas in a new era of globalization, consumer capitalism, and increased ecological stress.

I’ve heard a number of speakers, from the NAAB accreditation team that visited our school, to professors and students and others, describe what they see as a shift in architectural thinking happening in our generation of architects (us!). They tell us that we’re more motivated than past students to use architecture for social justice and societal change, more interested in making a difference than in making names for ourselves, and more practical and willing to work with a wide variety of partners in construction, finance, and real estate. I think that maybe a manifesto is in the works, but perhaps a good place to start would be with SHoP Architects' recent monograph “Out of Practice,” where they proclaim themselves to be a hybrid firm of “both/and,” interested in both theory and practice, academic and practical architecture, the “master craftsman” and the innovator and the theorist all at once. I’m not sure how much theory I see manifested in their built work, but I’m inspired by their attempt to bring many threads of discourse and practice together and their refusal to say that the practice of architecture is limited to any one realm. I also think they’re more honest than starchitect Bjarke Ingels (of BIG) [see my review of “Yes is More”], who also is famous for saying “yes” to everything as architecture, but in a much less thoughtful way.

I’m also encouraged by the proliferation of organizations like Architecture for Humanity, among others, with their explicit focus on matching architects to social problems. This semester I plan to investigate the field/movement of public interest design and evaluate the different methodologies of various public interest design groups. Hopefully, I will come out of this course with a better understanding of how public interest design works and how I can get involved as I transition into private architectural practice.

For more information about public interest design, check out this website and the work by Design Corps, in addition to Architecture for Humanity (now defunct), and the 1% project by Public Architecture.

[I ended up writing a paper on “humanitarian architecture” for my architecture & human rights course, discussing Architecture for Humanity, Habitat for Humanity, and the Rural Studio at Auburn. If you’d like to read the paper, send me a message! Eventually I plan to write a summary post but until then I’m happy to share the paper itself.]