Architecture and activism should be as closely linked as the problems we need to solve
Architects must pursue different kinds of profession-specific activism. The world has urgent concerns: the over-densification of urban centres, overconsumption, urban sprawl, ageing populations, poverty, the abandonment of industrial centers, climate change, housing shortages, migration, unemployment, global financial crisis, destruction of the rainforests, energy crisis, terrorism, health issues… No matter where these originate, they are intricately interrelated.
To address the major crises of our era, the traditional systems of understanding the world through the binary division ‘developed world’ versus ‘underdeveloped world’ has to be exchanged for a single world, within which environmental, mental or social spheres are intertwined. It is important for architects to volunteer their expertise where they are unaffordable, but it is also essential that architects dedicate their skills to inventing new practices to address these other challenges.
This may imply devising policies or working within multidisciplinary teams, or engaging with processes that take a long time to realise. They may not bring change immediately, but they must be pursued in order to tackle the broader spectrum of world challenges.
Architects can use policies to tackle not only environmental concerns but also social ones. In the UK, Section 106 (S106) agreements of the Town and Country Planning Act (1990) enshrine an ingenious planning policy, transforming the 20th century model of the city composed of ghettos into a city composed of socially integrated neighborhoods.
Since 2006, different local planning authorities have used S106 agreements to require all developments beyond a certain size to provide 30 percent of their residential component as affordable housing. This ensures that affordable housing is provided alongside housing for higher-income groups in prime locations, eliminating social segregation. In addition, housing is introduced in areas that would otherwise be filled with commercial spaces.
Without intervention, a purely commercial development would create desolate areas at night susceptible to crime. Architects can enhance the impact of this policy through design. The affordable housing portion of a development can be designed similarly to its market-based counterparts to diminish perceptions of income differences, creating a community with a greater sense of social cohesion.
Patronage of architecture is another profession-specific type of activism. For example, architectural awards can be highly effective in setting new standards through recognizing exemplary projects and thus inspiring similar efforts elsewhere. A primary school built in Burkina Faso through the initiative of Diébédo Francis Kéré, a young local architect, and his community, received an Aga Khan Award for Architecture.
Following this recognition, other schools were commissioned, giving more children access to education. The Aga Khan Award is unique in rewarding not only the final building but also the process that leads to it and the impact it has on its community and environment, thus promoting sustainability as a broader concern.
Another example of activism through patronage is the founding of the Maggie’s Cancer Caring Centres by architects Maggie Keswick Jencks and Charles Jencks, based on their belief that architecture can activate change in people’s mental states. Each Maggie’s Centre is housed within a building designed individually to act as a home away from home for those affected by cancer.
Two years ago I visited Zaha Hadid’s Maggie’s Centre in Fife. I found myself in front of a closed, black building with small windows. I asked one of the people using the centre what she liked best about the building. She told me that she liked the small triangular windows as they helped her focus her mind. I looked out one opening and saw the wheel of a car, another framed a branch with leaves and another framed a cloud.
I began to see the design of the windows in a different way. Their random arrangement inspired visitors to look through them and focus on intimately framed details, allaying feelings of confusion induced by cancer and therefore helping them live with it. Each Maggie’s Centre is designed to create this sense of focus. Hadid’s Maggie’s Centre uses its windows, OMA’s uses a central garden and Richard Rogers’s uses an arrangement of patios. In this way, the Maggie’s Centres are an example of how design can be an important agent of activism.
The world faces many different problems, all of which are interconnected. It is critical that different architects pursue different practices of activism at the same time, recognising that each is not a finite or comprehensive solution, but is interrelated with others. Architecture needs to embrace problems in this multiple, overlapping way, drawing strength from its diverging areas of specialisation. Only then can architecture approach the world ecosophically, encompassing simultaneously environmental, social and mental ecologies.
AR Buildings: Read Richard Murphy’s take on OMA’s Maggie Centre design for healthy circulation