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Think Global, Build Social! Architectures for a Better World

Showcasing projects not only from the third world but also from Europe and North America, this exhibition demonstrates the indisputable need for architects to regain a profound social consciouness

With the exhibition ‘Think Global, Build Social! Architectures for a Better World’, the Vienna Architecture Centre (AzW) presented a broad selection of ‘examples of an alternative, socially committed architecture, with minimal financial expenditure but a great deal of initiative and creativity’, all of them ‘attempts to improve the living conditions of people in less privileged areas of the world’. The exhibition was curated by Andres Lepik , currently director of the Architectural Museum of the TU Munich, and has previously been shown at the DAM, the German Architecture Museum in Frankfurt. ARCH+ published the catalogue in a highly recommended bilingual double issue, and ARCH+ editor Anh-Linh Ngo moderated the opening conference, with several architects whose work was represented in the exhibition participating. These events come hot on the heels of another exhibition (at the Architectural Museum of the TU Munich) curated by Andres Lepik, with a similar theme: ‘Afritecture, Bauen mit der Gemeinschaft’ (building with the community). Taken together, these events constitute a unique campaign by the most important German-speaking architectural institutions, who in this case seem to agree that the cause is more important than jostling to maintain their individual profiles.  

The exhibition shows realised works by 22 offices, organised according to five themes: Materials, Dwelling, Participation, Culture and Design/Build programmes. The latter category refers to the programmes run by various European architectural schools in which students can practice not just building but also the social and managerial skills needed for the building process. Dietmar Steiner, director of the AzW, has been a proponent of Design/Build programmes since he encountered the work of Rural Studio in 2001. It is partly thanks to his work that a dedicated part of the exhibition can be dedicated to an impressive number of projects involving Austrian participation, many of them initiated by Austrian universities.

‘In emphasising this building process, the exhibition breaks with the dictum that architects do not build, but only design’

During the opening conference, several speakers emphasised the idea that the process of construction is just as important as the realised building. The educational aspect is crucial in order to disseminate the knowledge acquired during the project, both among European students and local builders, and thereby enable other projects. The rediscovery of bamboo as a building material in Colombia by Andrès Bäppler Ramirez, for instance, leads not only to the realisation of interesting buildings, but also to a whole range of new building materials made out of bamboo. In emphasising this building process, the exhibition breaks with the dictum that architects do not build, but only design. While this division of labour continues in much of the world, in poorer countries enabling people to build themselves with local materials like clay and bamboo is economically and ecologically much more appropriate.

The selection of projects in the exhibition is not limited to third world or poor countries, however. Particularly since the widespread privatisation of housing in Europe and the real estate crisis of 2008, we have begun to realise that the creation of affordable dwellings is once more a challenge for architects. The BEL Wohnregal in Hamburg by Anne-Jülchen Bernhardt and Jörg Leeser, for example, proposes a simple structure of floors, elevators and stairs, in which people can build their own apartments. Druot, Lacaton and Vassal are represented by their upgrading of a residential tower in St. Nazaire. Gaupenraup’s ‘Vinzirast’ is a housing project accommodating both former homeless people and students in Vienna.

direct their attention to the question of contemporary architecture’s social responsibility

The ‘Think Global, Build Social! Architecture for a Better World’ directs its attention to the question of contemporary architecture’s social responsibility

Andres Lepik has become a prominent advocate of an important tendency in architecture that, after years – if not decades – of architects emphasising the autonomy of their discipline and the impossibility of architecture changing anything for the better, tries to rediscover a more urgent social basis for the profession. While working as a curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Lepik organised the groundbreaking exhibition ‘Small Scale Big Change’ in 2010, giving a stage to 11 architects and urbanists to demonstrate that even small projects can make a difference in an area beyond the narrowly conceived boundaries of the project itself. The effect was enormous. The exhibition took place just after the 2008 economical crisis, which was largely generated by the bursting of the American real estate bubble – a crisis, in other words, that was intimately related to architecture. The effect was also enormous because the exhibition took place in the MoMa, the traditional bulwark of architectures that avoid social and political issues, often reducing architectural discourse to matters of style and taste.

The projects in this show often have a surprising, fresh and new aesthetics, which corresponds perfectly well to developments in the art world, but they have more to offer than just that. For Andres Lepik, the false dichotomy suggested by Massimiliano Fuksas Venice Biennale motto ‘More Ethics, Less Aesthetics’ was an important reason to start presenting this work in the first place. Taking their place in books and galleries more usually devoted to ‘autonomous’ productions, these projects prove to be a valuable contribution to a wider trend. Intriguing in this light is the role of photographer Iwan Baan, who constantly travels around the world to photograph projects by both star architects as well as much of the work in this exhibition, treating it as absolutely equal. And in the realm of academia, postcolonial studies have recently begun to alter architectural historiography. Historians like Jean Louis Cohen, Tom Avermaete, Elie G. Haddad and David Rifkind as well as important institutions like the CCA take (post-)colonial architecture increasingly seriously and give it the place it deserves.

Architectural discourse seems to be facing an important paradigm shift. The awarding of the Pritzker Prize to Shigeru Ban, an architect who dedicates an significant part of his time to humanitarian work, may also be seen as a turning point. The popular dismissal of rabid reactions of architects like Patrik Schumacher to this choice demonstrates that change is in the air.

Think Global, Build Social! Architectures for a Better World

Where: Vienna Architecture Centre (AzW)
When: 15 March - 1 July 2014

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