Bruce Sterling considers the one small voice of socially responsible architecture — and the nefariousness overwhelming it.

Do-good architecture is the noble aspiration to better the shelter of mankind. Today it gets a louder hearing than usual, because the housing situation is a shambles.

By 2040, a third of mankind will live in slums. Not just the poor; a third of everybody. That’s the motivating fear—the growing dread that the political and economic systems we’ve built do us active harm. There was the major trauma of Katrina, of course. Historic New Orleans collapsed, becoming a sudden sister city to the urban mayhem in Africa, Southeast Asia, the Balkans, and the Caucasus.

The climate crisis is everywhere, from the jungles to the poles. No city, no matter how rich or well engineered, is prepared for the scale, scope, and speed of the floods, fires, and droughts brought by global warming. Then add soaring transportation costs turning car-dependent cities inside out. A global real estate crisis: Half the world has already urbanized, with a billion people in 200,000 monstrous “informal cities,” and the U.N. projects that urban areas will absorb all of the world’s population growth—2.5 billion people—over the next four decades. The built environment has turned sour.

So a jittery populace turn their smoke-reddened eyes toward visions of do-good architecture, which is old and comes in various forms. The first and largest is state-sponsored public housing. It is commonly installed after wars, major depressions, or big urban riots—state disasters, in other words—and commonly, it is ungainly, aggressive, and glumly bureaucratic. From Prague’s dour worker barracks to Cabrini-Green in Chicago, people vote against public housing with their feet.

Next come the housing schemes of Architects Without Frontiers, Architecture for Humanity, Habitat for Humanity, and their friends. These volunteer charity operations have strong ethics, but they lack political muscle or a steady revenue base. They are tiny voices in an emergency-rescue complex that overwhelmingly comprises the military, the Red Cross, U.N. refugee agencies, and civilian contractors.

The quintessence of do-gooder is the student activism pioneered by the late Samuel Mockbee. This model removes young architects from their classroom seats, employs their labor as sweat equity, and lets them directly confront fellow human beings who are wretchedly housed. As a hands-on moral education, this superb method is the architecture profession at its finest: straightforward, practical, immediate, and authentic. It’s hard and daunting work, almost a Gandhian direct action. However, like a Gandhi ashram, it doesn’t translate to a larger scale. Despite their sympathies, most architects don’t make careers housing the poor because the housing industry can’t make that pay. That’s why, all over the planet, the poor are housing themselves inside corrugated metal and tarpaper.

Architectural ingenuity has repeatedly attacked the architectural problems of emergency housing. It’s scarcely possible to get much cheaper, lighter in weight, or more portable than the paper tubes and tents of Shigeru Ban—but only a handful of people have erected them. The late Iranian-born, California-based architect Nader Khalili invented solid, roomy, even elegant structures made entirely of ultra-cheap sandbag fabric, barbed wire, and dirt. Poor, displaced people could have settled the moon with those constructions—in fact, Khalili’s “superadobe” was originally designed for that purpose. But you don’t see these structures in real life, especially in the slums.

Or in refugee camps. From Sudan to Sichuan Province, the world is pockmarked with them. None are brilliant places using minimal resources and maximal design genius to make the inmates safe, healthy, and comfortable. Do-good architecture cannot create such places. That’s because while refugee camps are marginally better than the mayhem refugees are fleeing, they are also punitive by their nature. Happy refugees are not “refugees.” They are strange people living in a new town built at somebody else’s doorstep and expense. Jealous locals naturally ask why they themselves are so badly housed in comparison.

So refugees live in do-bad architecture: the dominant architectural expression of our times.

Do-bad architecture comprises informal, emergent, spontaneous, make-do structures. It is built to manage and contain seething problems rather than to resolve or transcend them. Do-bad architecture hurts and harasses.

And do-bad architecture is eminently practical. We are all afraid of it, because we all sense that its invisible hand is waiting for us. And it is.

The ultimate do-bad facility is the graveyard, following, in varying degrees of harm, gulags and extermination camps, battlefields, prisons, refugee camps, poorhouses, and the colossal global variety of slums, barrios, favelas, and ghettos.

Then come the semilegalized slums and squats that are found in urban areas throughout the world.

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