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.

Finally, we arrive at some legal, conventional, low-income housing. This is the first of these vast and growing structural complexes not directly intended to hamper or harm people, and the first that directly involves architects and architectural ethics.

But do-good architecture does not merely respond to material poverty. Instead, it tangos with the colossal dysfunctionalities outside any blueprints. Today’s durable disorder is the playground of city-busting militias, gangsters, armed fanatics, and the blooming demimondes of narcotics, offshore pollution, and human trafficking. A vast, planet-girdling belt where the majority of the population has been systematically marginalized. Meanwhile, the elite is increasingly sequestered in gated containers like so many figures encased in snow globes.

It’s easy to recognize the worst in do-bad architecture, because it’s the stuff that happens to “them”—say, in some obscure Chinese boom town where children are buried in an earthquake-shattered heap of criminally substandard cement breeze-blocks. Like fish in water, we are surrounded by the do-bad architecture that shapes us.

The American prison system, by far the largest in the world, comprises huge-scale badness engineered for those Americans legally guaranteed to be bad. It is so unwieldy, yet so vital to the country’s identity, that the mentally ill and the penurious are left untended to wander American streets. Their ghostly, ill-considered presence means that American cities must take on the general character of flophouses and madhouses.

Every passerby experiences the mildly psychotic affect of Jersey barriers, metal detectors, and vidcams. American cities have evolved a baroque decor of bum-repellents, including jagged sawteeth on all sittable and sleepable surfaces.

American do-badness has become the architecture of the “stealthy, slippery, crusty, prickly, and jittery,” as the geographer Steven Flusty memorably puts it. These spaces are much worse than the weirdly abandoned Koolhaasian “junkspace” where individuals have no opportunity or incentive to engage in the civic realm. These Flusty spaces—fence-ringed green spaces, uninhabitable “public” plazas, policed shopping malls—are bent on our frustration, since they are hidden from our sight, physically unreachable, legally inaccessible, built to repel or irritate, or placed under scary levels of surveillance.

Do-bad architecture is native even to societies that claim cohesion and common purpose. As the general levels of misery rise, even the respectable and the privileged regard their neighbors as potential bad actors. Thus, at the same time that Russian and Chinese wealth is expanding, Americans find themselves in an increasingly predatory environment taking on the classic symptoms not of imaginary “late capitalism,” but of real-world late Communism. The Stalinist-gingerbread erections of the nomenklatura no longer disguise the morale-crushing decline of the infrastructure, the loss of direction and confidence. The whole shebang is visibly going bust. Even if they can’t guess why, people sense it.

Architecture has the power to recognize and reverse the ills of bad construction. That is its very purpose. However, the social influence of architects is in inverse proportion to the problems: the explosive growth of the world’s poorest and least-organized cities, and the can’t-go-on exhaustion of oil-fueled suburbs mortgaged past the hilt.

Consider the modern spectrum of private apartments, homes, offices, prestige public buildings, transport hubs, stadia, museums, resort complexes, and at the needlelike Dubai apex, an astounding blowout of mega-palaces for the new fossil-fuel plutocrats. Since form follows finance, architects are absolutely necessary at the top of this scale. Architecture’s importance dwindles rapidly all the way down. Finally, the practitioners cross the border into the shadowy world of illegality where they have to go underground. There they must look and act rather like architect Teddy Cruz.

As a writer, Teddy Cruz is terrific. The Voltairean contrast between the gated communities of right-wing San Diego and the heterogeneous slums of Tijuana—those vernacular constructions made of wrecked American tires and refrigerator doors—inspire Cruz to fits of prophetic oratory worthy of his dystopic pal Mike Davis. But architecturally, the slums of Tijuana can make little use for the services of Teddy Cruz. Any barrio local who strikes it rich doesn’t redesign his slum with smart touches and appropriate technology. Instead, he flees the do-badness for something as much like San Diego as he can afford.

Cruz knows that San Diego is transforming into Tijuana even faster than Tijuana is becoming San Diego. In 2008, that’s the world’s story in brief. The quickest way to turn San Diego into Tijuana is to set fire to it. Given that San Diego undertook the largest peacetime evacuation in American history due to wildfires of unprecedented scale, that’s quite plausible.

Because Tijuana is San Diego: It’s made from San Diego’s exported debris. The underclass inhabiting the debris are not a thrifty proletariat gamely working in the informal sector. They’re scary agents of the badness, just like you and me.

Entropy requires no maintenance. The Golden Straitjacket, as New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman once described it, of neo-liberal laissez-faire gleams brightly when the economic boat is rising. If the boat is taking in water, though, a golden straitjacket is the fastest way to drown. We’re in the straitjacket. We’re hoping for someone who can undo its knots.

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