Op-Ed: Social Architecture 2.0
February’s editorial about the 2016 Pritzker Prize touched on an important shift occurring within the field toward a more socially engaged model of architecture. I was intrigued by Cathleen’s provocative analysis and the many other articles published on this topic since the award. Cathleen’s point that architects are starting to address “the world’s most urgent problems” could not be more applauded and needed today.
I believe that the resurgence of what the Pritzker jury referred to as the “socially engaged architect” is meaningful because our profession has so much capacity to develop real solutions to global challenges like climate change, urban resilience, economic development, population growth, severe poverty, and the global housing crisis. With the level of need around us in the U.S. and abroad, we should all embrace this direction, and perhaps there are ways to go even further.
At the same time that we are witnessing a resurgence of socially-oriented design, there has been another equally significant trend towards research and evidence-based design in architecture. Research has gained momentum as a path to question and move past old assumptions at the core of traditional design solutions. With the dramatic pace of change—global, economic, climatic, and technological—every project must address a host of issues that were non-extant five or 10 years ago. The standard solution just doesn’t fit current challenges. Research allows architects to go to the driving issues underlying complex problems and ask, Why?
The intersection of socially-engaged architecture and research-informed design is potentially a defining opportunity for our profession today. One that could produce a new era of impact and leadership from a community of architects armed with knowledge, information, research, and data that uncovers real levers of change. Just as modernism, postmodernism, and deconstrucitivism defined the role and the public image of the 20th-century architect, we are poised to alter the way we approach the profession in line with the emerging social, economic, and political conditions of the 21st century.
The importance of research combined with the pursuit of socially-engaged design cannot be overstated. As history has shown, uninformed design solutions, no matter how genuine the good will, can do more harm than good. In the 1960s we saw a similar trend towards socially-engaged architecture in both the U.S. and Europe, and in hindsight, many social projects designed during that time, while well intended and idealistic, did not result in effective solutions. Not only did they not produce lasting positive impacts, many created more problems than they solved. This dynamic was exemplified in many urban renewal and mass housing projects. Likewise, in the 1970s, the well-intended response to the global oil crisis through a singular focus on glazing and engineering systems produced a generation of unhealthful buildings and office parks.
Unlike the 1960s and 1970s, today we have access to an enormous amount of information and data allowing us to see our projects through a broader lens. Through research, big data, building partnerships, and design leadership we can bring new levels of innovative design to our communities creating more socially impactful, empowering solutions.
I want to challenge today’s architects not to mimic the past efforts of social architecture. Big issues like economic opportunity, equality, climate, and health are very visible problems, but they emerge as the result of complex drivers. We don’t need to be idealists, we need to be realists. That means being a global citizen and recognizing that all projects carry an inherent social impact that will help to shape the lives and experiences of the people living in the communities where they are located. Armed with this understanding, architects should see getting involved with projects—whether they are considered “commercial” or “social”—that have a critical role to play in the future of a neighborhood, city, or country as the defining opportunities for our profession today.
Through the use of research, data, and leadership we can bring new levels of innovative design to these opportunities and create healthier and economically sustainable communities. Creating places that bring vitality and enhance the human experience is an open invitation to every architect. Let’s applaud Alejandro Aravena and embrace this emerging direction with a research and information rich approach that moves the profession forward with purpose, meaning and lasting impact.
Diane Hoskins, FAIA, is one of two Gensler co-CEOs and vice chair of the firm’s Board of Directors.