How many ways can architects engage with the communities and wider world around them?

Here are some randomly selected news stories from the last month:

• Rising temperatures and climate change are already here, contributing to the current extremes of droughts, wildfires, heat waves, and floods that are devastating regions of our country.

• A botched execution by lethal injection in Oklahoma caused obvious suffering to the inmate, who then died of a heart attack.

• French economist Thomas Piketty's runaway bestseller, Capital in the Twenty-First Century—which posits that global economic inequality will widen with disastrous results, unless governments intervene by raising taxes—kept fueling debates on talk shows and op-ed pages.

Photo © Michael Arnaud

So what do any of those topics have to do with being an architect today? Maybe a great deal, depending on your practice.

In this issue of RECORD, we feature a special report on ethics and architecture. The American Institute of Architects maintains a code of ethics for professional conduct, but we are looking at the subject more broadly—from the problems of migrant construction workers to the design of affordable housing; from refusing commissions to build prisons or execution chambers to engaging in socially activist and sustainable architecture.

On the following pages are some projects that exemplify ethical architecture. A school by Rogers Partners is sparking the revival of a derelict Baltimore neighborhood with a design that beautifully fits into its urban context. Staff housing at a remote clinic in Burundi was inspired by local conditions and labor, and supervised by New York architect Louise Braverman, mostly via Skype. A complex of appealing affordable apartments by Leddy Maytum Stacy addresses the skyrocketing rents in their hometown of San Francisco that are driving the middle class and working people from the city.

And a pioneering program for social architecture celebrates 20 years of success. RECORD's managing editor Beth Broome traveled to Hale County, Alabama, to report on Auburn University's Rural Studio and visit some of the houses and community projects designed and built over the last two decades by the architecture students in the program. Rural Studio's remarkable founder, the late Samuel Mockbee, saw its primary mission as that of educating those who came to be called “citizen architects”—and, today, there are more than 700 of them out in the world.

The tradition of citizen architects clearly applies to the New Orleans firm Eskew+Dumez+Ripple, whose practice has defined the best of social design and civic leadership in the revitalization of their city after Hurricane Katrina. This month, at the AIA convention in Chicago, the office will be honored with the AIA Firm Award for 2014. (And this month too, the activist trailblazer Shigeru Ban will pick up his Pritzker Prize at a ceremony in Amsterdam.)

Sadly, Eskew+Dumez+Ripple's founding partner Allen Eskew, who shaped the office's values and spirit, died just before the AIA Firm award was announced last December.

Now the profession has lost yet another passionate citizen architect. Though New York's Frederic Schwartz left behind a substantial body of work—including “Empty Sky,” a stunning memorial to victims of 9/11—his exceptional role as a civic activist, teacher, and relentless questioner of the status quo may well be his greatest legacy. In the months and years after the 9/11 attacks, Schwartz was a constant presence at public meetings and forums, calling for a sensitive and holistic response to rebuilding Lower Manhattan. With Rafael Viñoly, he led the THINK team, whose scheme for two open lattice-like towers was a finalist in the design competition for Ground Zero. The critic Philip Nobel, in his book Sixteen Acres, called Schwartz the “tragic conscience” of the efforts to rebuild.

Schwartz was active in post-Katrina New Orleans too, an engagement that began with a studio he taught and brought to the ravaged city from Harvard's Graduate School of Design in the fall after the hurricane. As one of his final acts of advocacy, he was a force behind the change last year in the AIA rules to allow two partners to win the Gold Medal—an honor he fervently believed Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi, his early mentors, deserve to receive together.

Architects often flourish later in their careers than those in other professions, pushing well into their 70s or 80s. Not Eskew or Schwartz, who died with many ideas and possibilities still ahead of them. But their students, colleagues, and fellow citizen architects are here to carry on.

AR Subscribe

email icon

I want to hear from you. Tell me how we can improve.

BNP Media Owner & Co-CEO, Tagg Henderson

Post a comment to this article