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Editorial: Has architecture lost its social conscience?

The question has become an arthritis; a dull ache that improves or worsens depending on the weather

For some, the social purpose of architecture is associated with the idealism of youth, to be shed like a snakeskin as the responsibilities of age take over. But there is still plenty of teeth gnashing and hand wringing.Even if architects are powerless to shape the economic and political context of their work, a building is still a place where people gather. A social purpose, whether for a school or an office tower, is still the driver of its design.

And yet, when the paperwork and construction are done, the bureaucracy surmounted, the fees paid (or not), and a building is finally complete, it’s the people we strip away. When architecture is published and the critic’s verdict given, it’s the messiness of life we edit out.

Inside Parque Novo Santo Amaro V

There are no lost socks in architectural photography, let alone plastic bags or empty wine bottles. Sometimes there isn’t even a street, just a building on an asphalt plinth. And neighbourhoods are viewed from the tranquillity of an aerial photo, because even favelas look picturesque from above. Architectural renderings contain more people than most photographs, and critics rarely interview the residents’ association.

Which begs the question, have architects lost their social purpose, or have we simply deleted it? Have we airbrushed it out of the picture along with other rogue elements such as laundry baskets and phone chargers, highchairs and curtains. (I live with an architect, and I know he would gladly erase our messiness, although I’m fairly confident that he would leave me and the children in.)

‘There are no lost socks in architectural photography, let alone plastic bags or empty wine bottles. Sometimes there isn’t even a street, just a building on an asphalt plinth’

How can a building be judged in the absence of inhabitation? Like a freshly painted nursery, the cot neatly prepared, the baby clothes pressed and folded, an unoccupied building is pregnant, yet still barren. The architectural press has been complicit in this erasure of people, but I am interested in redressing this, because I believe that the loss of a social purpose for architecture is linked to the way we consider buildings.

Parque Novo Santo Amaro V by Vigliecca&Associados

Source: Leonardo Finotti

Bedroom interior in Vigliecca’s Parque Novo Santo Amaro V, São Paulo

In this edition, the photography may not include many rogue elements, but we have tried to focus on the inhabitation of buildings and emphasise their social context. This is most tangible in the feature on Vigliecca’s Parque Novo Santo Amaro V, where we sent a photographer, filmmaker and journalist to the housing complex, completed in 2012, to review and document how the residents had settled in. An online film about New Andean architecture complements Mamani’s work in El Alto, Bolivia, with a greater focus on the context.

Why concentrate on Latin America? To borrow from Supersudaca, the history of these countries has much to teach us, and the stories in this edition offer stark contrast, from the permanence of monolithic bare concrete to the fragility of the favela, from the insertion of a cable car to the bulldozing of a motorway.

In some of these projects, I find a very precise untidiness - a deliberately eroded perfection; in others, the fervent belief that architecture can heal a violent history and class divisions. Maybe it’s time to mend those broken hearts: the social profession is not dead, after all.

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